If you were offered to live in a castle in Scotland, you might find it too dark, too big, too damp. For many people, the built environment feels like a castle in Scotland. With the aging of the population, the question will become increasingly important, points out Jean-Pierre Chupin, theoretician of architecture. “In our time, discussions surrounding universal accessibility can no longer be reduced to issues of reduced mobility. They must extend to neurological limitations. »
A new word is appearing in the vocabulary of design: “neuroarchitecture”. The concept, which appeared recently, invites the creation of places that take into account intuitive reactions to the environment, explains Virginie Lasalle, assistant professor at the School of Design at the University of Montreal. “Put like that, it’s good architecture as we’ve always done. But what is different now is that we are trying to better understand these reactions using data borrowed from other disciplines such as psychology or neuroscience. »
Neuroatypical people – a group that encompasses autism spectrum disorders, those of attention, anxiety, depression or cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s – fail to adapt to their environment as so-called neurotypical people can do. For their well-being, it is therefore the environment that must adjust to their needs. “We agree that the problem is vast”, underlines the researcher.
Noise, light, information overload, difficulties in location in space or interactions with others are all more or less major sources of irritation for people with neurological weaknesses. “If we want everyone to participate in society, we will have to be able to review shared environments to better accommodate them. Rethinking our common spaces through the lens of neuroarchitecture not only benefits people with limitations, but everyone,” argues Virginie Lasalle.
A research partnership involving 14 universities across Canada, 70 researchers and 68 civic and municipal organizations is working to redefine the quality of the built environment and participatory approaches. As promising as the idea of inclusive architecture may be, it gets complicated in practice when the needs of some clash with those of others, observes Jean-Pierre Chupin, director of a Canada research chair in architecture. at the University of Montreal.
Some may need very protective and subdued spaces, while others appreciate space and light, he gives as an example. “There is a certain complexity to considering in which context certain needs should be favored over others. The usual design recipes cannot be applied. It supposes changing one’s view of the user and, to this day, the user is still perceived as being within the norm. »
Of course, architects and designers work in collaboration with other disciplines when it comes to spaces reserved for people with neurological disorders. This is not the case for the design of places that are aimed at everyone, notes Jean-Pierre Chupin without, however, throwing stones at the architects. “We are guilty of ignorance because our trainings have ill-prepared us to take into account the invisible limitations. We used to say, “Why bother with it since it affects very few people?” We now know that it involves a large part of the population and that it extends from early childhood to the oldest age. So it wakes everyone up. »
In Quebec, Société Logique works for the development of universally accessible and inclusive environments. “There are two challenges to get there,” points out architect Isabelle Cardinal, who directs the consulting services of this non-profit organization. “First, our towns and villages are already built. We must also consider the fact that it is not part of the minimum construction requirements. »
By 2040, Canada aims to achieve universal accessibility by removing barriers for people with disabilities. “Accessibility standards for people with reduced mobility have yet to be defined, so imagine what about neurological considerations. When Société Logique approaches a building manager asking them to consider the needs of people with ADD or autism, they are perceived as being extremist,” notes Ms. Cardinal, adding a positive note to her remarks: “We are far from having an inclusive Quebec in this regard, but I feel that there has nevertheless been a movement in recent years. »
Change will come through educating a new generation of designers, decision-makers and the public, she says. By a change of mentality, adds Jean-Pierre Chupin. “You might have to expect to pay a little more to achieve true universal accessibility, but recent calculations indicate that this is not the case if it is well thought out from the start. The biggest challenge will probably be transforming existing buildings. It would be an illusion to think that we will be able to create perfect places that will suit everyone, but if it is less [bad], it will already be very good! »