Star-shaped hospital to help children with autism

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Floor plan

A University of Portsmouth architect has won an international architecture competition to design a research hospital treating children with autism and other similar conditions.

The building, by Dr Alessandro Melis, is for the Stella Maris Institute in Pisa, Italy. Its innovative structure is based around a ‘star’ shaped design with three wings radiating out from a central core creating three associated courtyards for gardens and play areas.

The façade is entirely transparent to maximise the amount of light entering the building and to bring nature inside. The latest thermal technology responds to the climate outside by maximising radiation in the winter and minimising it during summer, via a spiral awning that wraps around the entire building.

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Exterior view

The different wings house different functions of the building, so that research and teaching departments are separate from children’s treatment areas. The interior design complements the exterior with internal green spaces and open plan staircases maximising light flow. Rooms are designed around particular colours and incorporate natural materials and softer textures than traditional hospital buildings.

The shape of the building is highly unconventional especially when compared to traditional, functional hospital buildings but is designed to perfectly respond to the institution’s aims, which is dedicated to researching and treating conditions of the nervous system including Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

People with ASD tend to have problems with social interaction and communication and can find it hard to understand other people’s emotions and feelings. Children may lack awareness of and interest in other children and tend to play alone and language development may be delayed. Conditions such as these can have serious consequences for families and for society. Many people with autism have over-developed or under-developed sensitivities which can have a dramatic effect on the way in which they react to their surroundings.

Dr Melis, who won the competition with his architecture practice, Heliopolis 21, said that he designed everything with disorders such as ASD in mind. “As an architect you are always aware of how people will use and inhabit a building but when you have a space that will be used for such special conditions, it was a unique challenge and required an exceptional approach. I considered the most important users of this space and worked to create somewhere they would feel calm, comfortable and where they can be in touch with nature.”

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An impression of the interior

The President of Stella Maris, Giuliano Maffei, said that they had commissioned a building that will allow for the better study and treatment of specific diseases. He said: “The new structure is futuristic yet efficient, dynamic, friendly and technologically advanced, and will allow us to better carry out our work and to respond fully and speedily to the demands of the families.”

Dr Melis teaches the principles of environmental and sustainable architecture at the University of Portsmouth where his students learn some of the innovative techniques behind his award-winning designs. “I used ‘parametric’ software which gives the architect the tools to analyse and simulate the complexity observed in nature and apply it to structures.”

Construction on the new hospital is scheduled to start this summer. The designers and the Stella Maris institution believe that the new building can be a model for future positive development in the field of autism.

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