Presley’s Place just received the People’s Choice Award at AIA Pittsburgh’s Design Awards, demonstrating that there is a growing recognition of the strong impact design has on mental and physical health. Located at the Pittsburgh International Airport, Presley’s Place is named after the son of airport heavy equipment operator Jason Rudge, who originally pitched the idea of a sensory room to Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO, Christina Cassotis, through an employee suggestion box.
That simple suggestion led to the design and construction of a 1,500-square-foot space that serves as a respite for travelers with sensory processing issues, and their companions, who may have a need to de-stress while traveling. Pittsburgh International’s space isn’t just a room, it is an entire sensory-friendly suite, and appears to be “one of the world’s largest airport sensory spaces”.
The Allegheny County Airport Authority (ACAA) turned to us (Hayes Design Group Architects, or HDG) as one of their on-call architects to design the space based on our company’s experience in schools and other types of educational environments. We began with listening, working with the Airport Authority’s interdepartmental team at Pittsburgh International Airport and the Autism Connection of Pennsylvania to gather input from advocacy groups, individuals, and caregivers of those with neurodevelopmental challenges. We also visited facilities with sensory rooms, including schools and hospitals, to see what had been done in other similar spaces.
“Pittsburgh International and HDG began by asking us for help, then listening to families impacted by autism. We were thrilled to see the amazing outcome of a project. We believe in ‘belonging beyond acceptance,’ and this room means that people with autism belong in air travel,” says Luciana Randall, Executive Director of the Autism Connection of Pennsylvania.
Not having a strong personal connection to autism myself, I don’t think I understood prior to this project the diversity of needs that are met by this kind of space. I’m motivated and inspired by the potential of improving the everyday lives of people, not just in airports, but in many public areas that could benefit from spaces like this – grocery stores, sporting venues, museums and other cultural attractions, amusement parks, public pools and recreation facilities, and more.
The original intent for the project was to create a space for autistic children, to give them a space to decompress during a travel experience, either before or after a flight. The Autism Connection of Pennsylvania helped the planning and design teams to understand, however, that autism is not a diagnosis limited to children. Many adults function on the “autism spectrum”, and they are adults with jobs and lifestyles that necessitate travel.
Air travel, although it has a certain air of excitement, can be stressful, noisy, and exhausting for anyone. But for passengers with autism or other neurological sensitivities, flying can be completely overwhelming. Autistic brains are always activated, which can make it difficult to process different levels of information. Stimulation by various colors, sounds, textures, and smells can work against each other, causing feelings of confusion, fear, and even pain to emerge. Even more, the sensory issues of autism can involve both hyper-sensitivities (over-responsiveness) and hypo-sensitivities (under-responsiveness) to a wide range of stimuli, according to Autism Speaks, an organization dedicated to promoting solutions for the needs of individuals with autism and their families.
Developing a stronger understanding of how the autistic brain functions was a critical step in the design process, and that knowledge was carefully integrated into the design for this project. One of the challenges the design team faced was determining how to best provide the right type of calm to serve people with all types of neurological struggles or anxieties, while also considering the differing needs of both children and adults. This project required careful design work based around how to calm all the senses, while not creating a “therapy space.” As the project progressed, we identified a number of special and custom-made features in order to make this possible.
“I was amazed at the thought and care that went into the creation of Presley’s Place. It truly sets our airport apart and reflects the best of Pittsburgh,” says Dr. Wendy Pardee, President and CEO of The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh, the leader in innovative and integrated healthcare, education, and social services for children and youth with special health care needs.
The final 1,500-square-foot suite contains a family room, three individual rooms, a quiet room and an airplane experience room, which contains real airline seats, overhead bins, and working lights. The project also included a new sensory-friendly companion care/family restroom with a sink and an adult changing table that are both height-adjustable. As a result of the initial focus groups, many unique features were incorporated to meet varying needs of both children and adults so that all could benefit from this space while traveling.
Some of these include:
- A variety of tactile, touchable surfaces, including a custom wainscot
- Adjustable overhead LED lighting softened using acrylic “cloud covers”
- Acoustic solutions addressing partitions, sliding doors, and ceilings, and the use of absorptive wall panels as a design element
- Use of sustainable, odor-free materials
- Incorporation of smaller rooms for silence or privacy
- Custom-built “sensory support nooks” that feature bubble tubes and LED fiber-optic tunnels, offering calming sounds and visual stimulation
- Soft surfaces throughout the space
Once design was complete for the project, the Airport Authority’s in-house build team of more than three dozen talented tradespeople brought the design to life over just six months, constructing the room with great care and precision. Many of them have a family member with autism. We found that they brought the highest levels of craftsmanship and attention to detail in executing the project. The build team members had a strong commitment to seeing that every feature was completed as designed, so as to best serve all intended users.
The project was a very rewarding experience on its own – a committed, responsive client, combined with talented, team-oriented tradespeople, all to give support to an underserved market. On top of that reward, we were overwhelmed by the enthusiasm with which the room was received when it opened. The project was praised nationwide across social and traditional media, including coverage from The Today Show and People Magazine.
As architects, I believe we have a responsibility to educate our clients who build or maintain public facilities on how to “design for all”. We know that every client isn’t going to have the space, the funding, or the need for a 1,500-square-foot suite like the airport’s sensory room.
However, as facilities are maintained, improved, or enlarged, building owners should take into account their responsibility to put forth a building that is truly open and inviting to all, through considerations such as nursing mothers’ rooms, sensory rooms, and toilet rooms with adjustable fixtures and adult-compatible changing tables. Accessible wheelchair ramps at one time were a luxury, and now we wouldn’t think of (nor be permitted to) design a building without them. We should have the same level of commitment to serve those of all ages and needs, including those with hidden disabilities of the brain.
Jennifer Beck, AIA is a project architect at Hayes Design Group Architects. She is also a recipient of the 2019 Sho-Ping Chin Women’s Leadership Summit Grant.