Wearing a VR headset helped us make ID:SR Sheppard Robson’s new Cardiff broadcast centre consider neurological diversity, writes the BBC’s Alan Bainbridge
BBC Workplace is always working to make its buildings as inclusive as possible. But my definition of inclusivity – especially within the workplace – broadened considerably four years ago when we were in the early stages of designing the interiors for the BBC Cymru Wales Broadcast Centre in Cardiff with interior designer ID:SR Sheppard Robson.
A kick-off meeting with inclusive design consultant Jean Hewitt, looked at how neurological differences can lead to decidedly different experiences of space. This was our introduction to the relatively new term “neurodiversity”.
In this meeting, we were asked to wear virtual reality headsets that simulated how someone neurodivergent would experience a typical office space. I did not expect my experience of looking through the headset to be so uncomfortable, illegible and anxiety-inducing: the lights seemed to flicker uncontrollably, the names of the meeting rooms and wayfinding were blurring, and the patterned carpets seemed to be moving up and down. I only managed a couple of minutes before I had to take the headset off.
In the new Cardiff building, quiet and calm spaces will be found throughout the floorplates and used for focused work
This led us to also think in more detail about how people with neurodivergent conditions, such as autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and other ‘hidden’ conditions experience space – with different perceptions, memory processes and judgements of time and distance. This set a trajectory for the project that was based on understanding physical and neurological diverse needs of individuals – many of which had not been fully addressed before.
Creating spaces that are sensitive to neurodiversity does not mean compromising on design quality or adding a cost premium to the project. We wanted to create energetic, colourful and collaborative spaces that were nevertheless sensitive to neurodiversity. We aimed to do this through a process of constant dialogue, consulting closely on design decisions throughout the project.
Our approach was supported by the BBC’s own neurodiversity initiative BBC Cape, whose cognitive accessibility toolkit helped us examine many different elements of the design, including: how landmarks, colour and texture can assist wayfinding; using the right colours and contrasts in the manifestations, fabrics and flooring; and training the reception staff to help all people use the building. Our consultation with a diverse range of people, emphasised the importance of giving visitors and staff information about the experience of the building before arriving, allowing them to preview and prepare their journey or plan the work setting that would suit them best.
Perhaps one of the simplest and most impactful changes we made was with lighting. Flickering lights are commonplace in office environments and can be a major hindrance. Non-flickering LED lamps and a drop in lighting levels – when compared to BCO standards – evoke a more comfortable and domestic feel.
These elements are complemented by a thoughtful range of spaces that recognise open-plan environments cannot work for everyone all of the time. In the new Cardiff building, quiet and calm spaces will be found throughout the floorplates and used for focused work, allowing people to get away from the noise and hubbub and select the work settings best for them.
Many people who walk into the new BBC Wales Broadcast Centre will not notice that it is a neurodiverse building – and this is a good thing. The specific design features that promote this level of inclusivity should be woven into the building, subtly welcoming a broader demographic within the office. This intrinsic approach does not only create a fairer environment but also allows an organisation to maximise the potential of two key investments – people and property.
With wellbeing in the workplace now higher on the agenda, as well as a growing acknowledgement that one-size-does-not-fit-all in a productive office, it’s up to us to continue to keep thinking about what makes a building inclusive. I am by no means an expert in the relatively new field of neurodiversity, but I do recognise that we have a significant opportunity right in front of us. We can drive a rethinking of inclusivity through the power of thoughtful and high-quality design, with property professionals in the driving seat to make changes that are both practical and socially transformational.
Alan Bainbridge is director of workplace at the BBC