Helping students achieve success and reduce disruptive behavior is critical for schools. Buildings’ designs, particularly for those focused exclusively on serving special-needs students, must consider sensory challenges and environmental impacts on behavior and learning. Ensuring structures and public spaces can be accessed by all has become increasingly sophisticated. Understanding students’ unique cognitive and physical disabilities when designing these schools, whether for new construction or renovation, increases students’ achievements and engagement.
Yaldei Development Center
To help their profoundly developmentally delayed children, Menachem and Devorah Leifer founded the Donald Berman Yaldei Developmental Center in 1998 in Boisbriand, Quebec, Canada. The center started out in their modest home with only three children and three staff members. Thanks to intensive early-intervention treatment, the children began to make miraculous progress. Word of mouth about the school’s unique approach led to phenomenal growth and expansions over the years into numerous facilities, each larger than the previous.
In 2016, the school purchased a 1960s-era building for what at that time was a student body of 370. The 3-story building in Montreal would allow the kids to be in one facility all day for therapy and school. The therapy rooms would be located on the second floor—the Yaldei Therapy & Early Intervention Center—and classrooms and administrative offices—the Yaldei School—would be on the first floor. Additional classrooms would be on the third floor. However, extensive renovations were needed to accommodate the students’ special needs and, in 2017, after a broad search and numerous presentations by architecture firms, the school’s executive board retained Stendel + Reich Architecture Inc.
The design goal for the entire facility was to create a space that would reduce children’s anxiety and make learning fun. To achieve this, the students’ different disabilities were studied extensively even before developing plans to present. The team used previous experience designing Alzheimer’s facilities, which was helpful in this process. For example, when Alzheimer’s patients get to the end of a corridor they still want to walk straight and don’t realize they must turn. This also holds true for many Yaldei students. Understanding this concept led to the creation of oval corridors where, if students turn the wrong way, they just follow it around to where they started.
Using color that correlates to each room is another key part of the design to help students. Although many can’t read, they are able to identify colors. For instance, blue floor tile corresponds with the blue classroom door that is also carried through with blue acoustic ceiling panels.
Observing students in the therapy rooms led to the realization that students can be easily distracted by things outside. To address this, these rooms no longer have direct windows to the outside. The rooms have a glass wall facing the corridor and on the other side of the corridor are windows letting in natural light. Because the children can’t see directly outside, they are less prone to distractions by airplanes, clouds or rain, for example.
Challenges and Solutions
Because the school serves students with many different special needs and developmental issues, the design had to address these simultaneously but without conflicting between each. For example, the design had to work for children with very different sensory processing disorders.
The renovation’s lighting prevents those who are too sensitive to bright lights from being adversely affected and distracted by them while providing enough illumination for children who need more light. Additionally, for some children on the spectrum, lighting can be a source of distraction and cause severe anxiety. Luminaires had to be specified that didn’t have significant intensity or glare but still provide the necessary illumination.
A wide range of lighting products complement the unique design and accommodate the complex ceiling plan. Working closely with the lighting manufacturer, 152 total donated lights were selected for Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the project. These include recessed downlights installed over each classroom door that deliver visual comfort and color mixing with their optical system. The project also includes an innovative linear ambient LED lighting tool with a two-sided lens that produces people-friendly vertical illumination, sending more light to the eye and improving facial recognition. Additionally, a semi-circular-shaped luminaire mimics the curve of the circular entrance ramp, delivering comfortable and efficient illumination.
Typical 2 by 4 fluorescent or LEDs were specifically not selected for use in the classrooms. Instead, skinny strips in various designs were installed to ensure that a child with a sensory processing disorder who might be bothered by light would find these fun. They also appear less institutional.
PHOTOS: courtesy Axis Lighting unless otherwise noted