GM+AD use materials as an innovative means of sensory navigation
Hazelwood School caters for 60 students with multiple disabilities, aged from 2 to 19. Each student has a combination of two or more of the following impairments: visual impairment, hearing impairment, mobility or cognitive impairment. The design focused on creating a safe, stimulating environment for pupils and staff. The architect set out to eliminate any institutional feel and worked to avoid conventional/standard details, creating a bespoke design that incorporates visual, sound and tactile clues.
The site is surrounded by mature lime trees with three beach trees in the centre. The building snakes through the site, curving around the existing trees, creating a series of small garden spaces and maximizing the potential for more intimate external teaching environments.
These outside spaces are integral to the teaching practice of the school. It is vital that the children have an accessible external environment, which allows them to breathe fresh air, to hear the wind rustling the trees and to feel the rain. These sensory experiences whilst taken for granted by many form a critical part of a Hazelwood pupil’s education. Navigation and orientation through the building was also critical. The concept of a 'sensory wall' was developed, which doubled as a storage wall. It allows the children to move around the school with a level of freedom. The wall is clad in cork, which has warmth and tactile qualities and provides signifiers or messages along the route to confirm the children’s location within the school. Each one of the external materials was selected for their sensory qualities. The natural larch weatherboarding develops a strong grain when exposed to the elements, offering a gently rippled tactile quality for ‘trailing’ (navigation using the sense of touch). Roofing slate hung vertically as cladding has been used to contrast with the timber boarding. Noticeably harder to the touch, the slate walls define external play spaces and have the advantage on the south elevations of heating up under the sun’s rays, providing another navigation tool for students.
High level clerestory glazing forms a substantial part of the façade of the north-facing classrooms, allowing for maximum daylight to penetrate deep into the spaces. The north aspect of these rooms helps minimize direct sunlight entering the classroom which, if allowed in, can restrict the ability of visually impaired students to define surfaces /objects and have a major impact on their concentration levels .