In French Countryside, A Home Built Especially For Autistic Patients
The architecture and interior design of a residential care home serving autistic people were specially designed to make the patients more comfortable. A look inside the award-winning facility.
CHAMPCEVRAIS — On the village square, just a few steps from a magnificent tree, a small group of people are chatting over coffee. Close by, others are reading or napping, curled up in curvy wooden deck chairs. It's an almost ordinary countryside scene.
Almost. The village square, around which this community is organized, is covered by a zinc vault with a glass roof and skylights. This is the heart of a unique building where 18 people with autism, aged from 20 to 60, have been living since November 2014.
The arrangement — the curves, materials, colors, lights, furniture — has all been designed to create a peaceful setting for the residents, whose sensory hypersensitivity in particular has been taken into account.
"I was obsessed by one thing, that the residents don't feel as if they're in a hospital, locked-in," designer-architect Emmanuel Negroni says during a guided tour. "So I removed the hallways, which can be anxiety-provoking, and imagined a system made up of elliptical vaults that bring volume while being protective."
Built in the middle of the countryside, near the small village of Champcevrais two hours south of Paris, this residential facility was named "The awakening of the beetle" ("l'Eveil du scarabée," in French), in reference to the shape of the building and what this insect symbolizes: resurrection. To keep echoes and other noise to a minimum — because they are often sources of stress or even pain for people with autism — the architect used perforated sheeting walls (sound traps) lined with acoustic insulation, a system used in concert venues.
The ceilings have been equipped with plasterboard with acoustic properties. Negroni had no knowledge of autism before the project but conducted painstaking research, which also included deep consideration of the colors and lighting.
Programming the atmosphere
For those familiar with the impersonal, pale or greenish atmosphere of many care facilities, it may come as a shock to learn that this facility features not just an abundance of natural light but also views of the surrounding nature and the sky. But it can also be subdued so as not to be aggressive.
The architect used LED lights for the artificial lighting, "which make it possible to program the atmosphere like you want," Negroni notes. "You can choose a stimulating light in the morning and softer in the evening. It's even possible to select color codes corresponding to different times of the day, at mealtimes for instance. These signs can be useful for those who have trouble setting themselves in time."
Around the central square and its tree, the more specific rooms — infirmary, computer room, sensory room with balneotherapy — are glowing. There is also a restaurant, with a bar and a therapeutic kitchen. The private spaces are organized into five "houses," each comprised of four individual bedrooms with bathrooms.
"One of the challenges was to erase the medical aspect, all the while conforming to the needs and regulations, which are very restrictive for this type of building, and without going over the 2,000-euro-per-square-meter budget," the architect explains.
Just a few months ago, most of the residents lived a few kilometers from here, at a former farm. "I wanted them to be able to choose their rooms, and when they arrived, we symbolically handed over the keys," says facility director Jean-Pierre Sanchis. "For many, it's the first time they've had a real home."
A therapeutic building
The patients are delighted to show off their apartments. Dominique is particularly proud of his wall television and bedside lamp. "For 10 years, he used to disassemble radio sets, televisions, outlets, a countless number," Sanchis says. "When he arrived here, this disorder disappeared."
The manager embraces the idea that a building can be therapeutic. "It's a member of the team," he insists. Adeline Moneuse, a senior employee of the facility, also talks about obvious changes in the behavior of residents: they're calmer, have fewer aggressive outbreaks and tend to sleep better.
Will the medical benefits of this environment persist and will they ever be objectively assessed? It would undoubtedly be the greatest reward for the manager and for village Mayor Pierre Denis, who fought for nearly 10 years in support of this pioneering project, which has been heavily criticized by certain local politicians. In the end, it cost 4.2 million euros, "in the higher range for this building category," Sanchis says.
But it hasn't escaped notice for its groundbreaking role. On March 3, Negroni received a prestigious architecture award (ArchiDesignClub Awards 2015) in the health facilities category.