Last night Dirtworks P.C celebrated with the Society of American Registered Architects, New York Chapter (SARA NY) for their 2018 Awards at the Battery Park Gardens.  We are honored to be included among such a talented and thoughtful group of professionals. Our project the Sensory Arts Garden was award an Honor Award.

The Sensory Arts Garden at The Els Center of Excellence was purposely designed for individuals with autism and the community of parents, educators, therapists, and caretakers that support them. The Center, located in Jupiter, Florida, is committed to helping individuals with autism realize their full potential to lead positive, productive, and rewarding lives though world-class educational and therapeutic programming. Grounded in interdisciplinary research and collaboration, the garden expands the Center’s program into a vibrant outdoor setting, celebrating individual strengths and preferences, and positioning nature as essential partner in health and wellness. With meticulous attention to detail and thoughtful arrangement of plants, materials, furnishings, and spaces, the garden balances a range of stimulating and calming sensory experiences to allay stress and anxiety and gently elevate the senses — sight, smell, touch, taste, sound, as well as one’s sense of balance, position, and movement in space. The 13,000 square foot garden refuge offers a nurturing, sensory-rich, environmentally sensitive therapeutic setting that supports individuals with autism in enhancing their capacity to successfully work, play, socialize, and learn.

Serenity, security, and restoration are the foundation of a design that honors individual strengths and preferences, addresses the realities of hypo- and hypersensitivities, fosters curiosity and meaningful interactions, and most importantly, is welcoming to all regardless of ability.

Autism is a complex neurological condition impacting an individual’s ability to communicate and relate to others and to the world around them. A deficit in sensory integration — the ability to organize and effectively respond to sensory information from one’s environment — is a notable characteristic of autism, leading to atypical responses to sensory input. For the design to effectively address the breadth and complexity of autism, the project necessitated a particularly close collaboration between the landscape architect and the Center’s Director of Programming and Occupational Therapist consultant. The outcome of this interdisciplinary partnership reflects a nuanced response to the varied experiences of the autistic individual while balancing the programming needs of a vibrant and growing teaching and therapeutic facility.

Considerations for routine, pattern, sightlines, and wayfinding informed the overall garden form; preserving a degree of openness allows for continued discovery, autonomy, and flexible use. Easy transitions, clear circulation patterns and destinations, and deceptively simple geometries make for a comprehensible and inviting space for the individual with autism. Potential fears of the unknown or anxiety about what to expect of a garden visit are allayed at the entry portals. These serve as transitional spaces that welcomes one into the garden, offering a place to pause before entering and take in the unobstructed views of the space in its entirety. A verdant, planted perimeter encloses the space and focuses one’s attention within the garden. Overhead a uniform canopy of foxtail palms offers a structural rhythm, calming enclosure, and relief from the sun.

Every plant, material, and furnishing was carefully considered for its appropriateness, safety, durability, and therapeutic potential. “Sensory rooms,” aligned on the garden’s axis, discretely target each of the five senses and feature custom, lightweight, fiberglass planters — a material that reduced cost and precluded the need for heavy equipment that would have been unmanageable on the small site. The planters’ varying heights bring a rich variety of sensory-appropriate plants to a comfortable and easily accessed position for visitors big and small, mobile and seated. Each room is encircled by a dark band in the pavement, forming a subtle visual boundary and signaling a change in sensory experience. Small, movable, musical sculptures activate these spaces with sound. Teachers and therapists may reposition the instruments at their discretion to encourage cooperative exchange or to support an individual’s creative explorations.

A series of reduced and integrated sensory spaces, or “places away,” along the garden perimeter provide a calming counterpoint for those who may experience hypersensitivity or seek a moment of respite and refuge. To enhance feelings of serenity and tranquility, the planting palette within these spaces is purposely muted. Structured, trunk-supporting, straight-backed benches with armrests provide comfort and refuge in key areas. Pebble seats offer a playful alternative and varying levels of proprioceptive and vestibular experience. When siting furniture, considerations were made to encourage social interaction in some areas while offering privacy and respite in others. Water spheres provide many sensory experiences including the proprioceptive and vestibular. Their placement, low to the ground and tucked into planting beds, requires one to squat, reach, and balance. Smooth and rigid spheres offer varied tactile engagement. All furnishings are secured to foundations, preventing movement or tipping. A simple ground plane unifies the space, changing in color or material at key moments to signal a transition, a new experience, or to bring one’s focus toward the body and senses. Insertions of large pebble pavers enhance tactile engagement and gross motor skills. Encircling paving bands in others area mimic the practice of positioning the autistic individual within a ring or circle, which tends to calm and center the student when agitated.

The planting strategy was deliberately shaped through a melding of salutogenic design principles and a deep understanding of the unique needs of individuals with autism. All materials were thoroughly vetted for lack of toxicity and an environmentally sensitive coordinated maintenance program insures the use of chemicals only as the last resort. Trees were selected for their structural qualities — limb structure, shape, and shade capacity, visual and tactile features, and semi-permeability for clear sight lines within the garden. Repeated patterns of planting material provide a just right amount of consistency balanced with interest and mystery that individuals with autism tend to respond to in a positive manner.

Safety and security, the thread that unites all other considerations, is reflected in the overall design, details, and material selection. Smooth and consistent surfaces, strong and durable materials, and designs that eliminate awkward corners address potential collisions and adverse reaction. Careful selection and placement of plant materials ensures safety and minimizes untoward negative sensory responses, while allowing staff and family members to observe students at a distance as they discover the garden on their own.

In establishing a vibrant outdoor living classroom, an enriching therapeutic environment, and an inclusive, welcoming space for all, the Sensory Arts Garden advances the Center’s position as a leader in the field, broadens their influence within the autism community, and serves to promote the value, acceptance, and inclusion of individuals with autism. The garden extends invitations for children to feel whole and safe on their own terms — to be part of something bigger than themselves without feeling overwhelmed. Since its opening, individuals with autism have found reprieve in the garden’s “places away” and enrichment through exploration of the plants in the sensory rooms. Students have identified favorite spots within the garden and return to engage with these spaces daily, exploring their subtle changes and new growth. The garden has become an established space for outdoor instruction, providing opportunities to connect with students who may be challenging to reach. Music and yoga classes and reading groups have all benefited from this sensory-rich, living classroom that welcomes all regardless of age, ability, or preference. Within a lush and safe setting, the garden provides opportunity and choice for each visitor to engage with nature on their own terms, in their own way, and at their own pace.

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