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Children’s Interactive Sensory Pods at CCPL Middleburg Heights Branch Library

Authors: Stephanie Shook, NCIDQ, IIDA, LEED AP, Associate & Director of Interior Design

Statement of the Problem

The Cuyahoga County Public Library endeavored to replace and expand their Middleburg Heights Branch Library and hired HBM Architects. Through this process, the system found the Middleburg Heights Branch’s service area included a larger population of people living with autism spectrum disorder than other library branches. Public awareness and specifically, pre-k screening has dramatically increased the number of children diagnosed with this disorder over the past several years. Since public libraries cater to the entire community, the Library challenged HBM to design a children’s area that was inviting to all children, supports early literacy and motor skills while accommodating the needs and sensitivities of those with autism.

Description of the Site & Environs

The new Middleburg Heights branch library building opened in 2018. The building features a soaring barrel-vaulted central volume that serves the main public library functions. It’s not only the dramatic focal point for the building, the open and flexible floor plan is laid out with a hierarchy of spaces for natural sound mitigation as you move through the building. The Children’s and Teen area is located adjacent to the barrel-vaulted space creating an area dedicated to the local youth. A youth program room, family restroom, glass study rooms, computers, and gaming also reside in this location. The fenestration promotes sweeping views to the neighboring park with opportunity for outdoor programming and activities.

Design Intentions & Distinguishing Factors of the Work

The HBM team and the owner elected to meet with an Autism consultant to better understand how spectrum children perceive and interact with the built environment. Understanding that Autism has a wide range of symptoms and triggers that vary from person to person in differing levels of intensity inspired the team as they moved forward. HBM then worked to develop a design, layout, and color palette sympathetic to those with autism spectrum disorder and activities related to how they experience the world around them. The challenge included a way to integrate these special activities in a way that worked for all the children utilizing the library.

The design was mindful of sensitivity to light, noise, bold contrasting colors, and busy patterns which can trigger a negative reaction from spectrum children. Establishing design parameters and finish selections for this space included custom cabinetry to help create elements that provide the desired activities, aesthetics and functions that off-the-shelf catalog items could not easily provide. The HBM interior design team, known for their creative custom cabinetry solutions, designed two semi-enclosed multifunctional activity pods with the ability to give these special young patrons a place to experience a “calming” sensation as well as intrigue all the community children to develop their literacy skills through play-learn-grow experience.

These warm deep purple pods contain multifunctional elements that can create a range of environments from a calming subdued nook to a fun activity pod. Concealed speakers connect to an iPad loaded with specialized applications, including calming music that resonates with autistic children. Recessed tamper resistant LED lighting is dimmable to create a soothing atmosphere or brightened to encourage reading books and active play.

The exterior of the activity pods has vertically oriented interactive elements for low-tech motor skill play. One pod incorporates a Lego board and the other a magnetic dry-erase board. These activities were oriented vertically as this type of orientation and play helps children with autism spectrum disorder practice important motor skills for shoulder and arm coordination. Yet these are also activities that are popular for children at the other library branches so resources can be shared throughout the system.

These sensory activity pods are one way that the library can create a fun, all-inclusive, and compelling Children’s area while including interactive elements that support early literacy development and motor skills for children and elements that are seamlessly and inherent to the sensitivities of autistic children.


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