Universal Architecture for Autism: Bancroft Pediatric Campus

“One world. For everyone.” For nearly 130 years, Bancroft has been a leader in breaking down boundaries for individuals with neurological challenges, autism, and intellectual and developmental disabilities. To progress with its innovative continuum of care—to better unlock each person’s full potential for lifelong learning and fulfillment—Bancroft is relocating programs on their 16-acre Haddonfield Campus to a new 30-acre campus.

KSS Architects is partnering with Bancroft to bring insight and expertise to the architecture that will shape the campus as a multi-faceted learning and support tool—engaging and empowering the students, while championing their families and assisting the staff in reaching each child’s goal of becoming their best and highest selves.

The Site

The Bancroft Pediatric Campus will be located on 90 acres of greenfields in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, with convenient access to the transportation networks of Interstate 295 and the New Jersey Turnpike. The location offers vocational opportunities within the nearby office park and adjacent retail, and is surrounded on many sides by forested land, farm fields, streams, and a pond.

This new campus will provide state-of-the-art facilities for the Bancroft School, the Lindens, and Transitional Housing on 178,000 square feet of space. Its buildings will be organized around a series of outdoor rooms which will serve a variety of scales and purposes, linked by views and pathways. These buildings and a sensory trail will form natural protective edges to the pedestrian campus, with vehicular traffic and parking located along the perimeter. 

Key to the success of the campus is the introduction of a Commons Building which creates synergies between the education and housing programs and provides nodes of interaction with the surrounding community, unlocking new opportunities for Bancroft students. Like a successful village, the new campus will maximize opportunities for exchange and interaction with families, volunteers and seniors, other schools, universities, and businesses.

The Concept

The design of the new campus is predicated on Bancroft’s holistic concept of creating, for each student, a balance between comfort and personal growth, and thoughtfully nurturing each child’s transitions in a nature-based, sensory-rich setting. As the new campus navigation system intentionally transitions from private residences to public areas, a secondary transition is cued: that from comfort zone to growth zone, from home-life assurance to life-skill learning. Nature, a proven collaborator in learning, eases transition and promotes balance by maintaining a constant presence. Sensory learning opportunities, both indoors and out, abound. Transitional architecture, in lock-step with nature, creates a supportive and innovative framework promoting student, teacher, caregiver, and family success.

The Universals of Architecture for Autism

Nature as an Element of Design. Beyond tangible design is the ethereal—the way that students see nature and hear it, touch it, and sense it. Immerse themselves in it. The grounds of Bancroft will become the conduit through which students experience nature and growth. An outdoor play area, a nature trail—it is architecture that inserts itself into nature. To bring student and nature together in the most sublime and effortless of manners creates a new sense—that of wonder, appreciation, and peace.

From patterned visuals and repetitive sounds, to appealing touch and texture, nature can be a sensory-based pedagogy for education, a substantive, interactive, subject of knowledge, or a serene backdrop for effective teaching—or sometimes, simply, a needed respite from learning.

  • Nature Speaks a Common Language: Autism takes on many forms. Each child unique. But what seems to resonate, what consistently parallels: nature. So nature infuses Bancroft—informing all design. Speaking to all, welcoming all. The entry to the Bancroft Campus presents as a rural tree-lined drive leading to a place of marvel. Buildings surrounded by natural grasses and meadow mixes. Clustered shade trees provide opportunities for benches and picnic tables. Bancroft feels like, and is, a place where students live and learn, and have every opportunity to succeed in leading a healthy and fulfilling life.
  • Buildings Filter and Frame Nature: The buildings of Bancroft, designed to be as low-scale as possible, are created as filters and frames: welcoming visitors by utilizing sculptural roofs to frame views through the buildings out to nature—the greens, the fields, the pond, and the forest. The sculptural roof forms, comprised of exposed wood decking, extend over the public spaces, becoming visual identifiers of main entryways.

The contiguous residences, fronting onto the pond, reprise the sculptural roof forms, reminiscent of the entryway, enabling each child to identify and locate their home. The many showcased, strategic views lead visitors and residents through campus, highlighting the natural surroundings and providing a peaceful and calming atmosphere.

  • Nature Shapes Master Plan: The school and residential administration building are placed around the new entry drive and pond, the school and the housing are organized around the main green, the school wings are positioned to protect the elementary playground, and the Lindens are grouped as a serene discreet quadrangle. The Lindens also include a semipublic area, designed as a family garden, to provide private opportunities for families and their children to spend time together. Playgrounds are organized into intimate rooms for individualized equipment.
  • State of Nature Indicates Place and Purpose: The nature of the public areas is poised: lawns manicured, hedgerows sculpted, flora arranged. Formal. As the public areas transition to private residences, nature becomes less formal, more open—inviting to walks, runs, exploration. At the Lindens, the most private area of Bancroft, for those working on the greatest challenges, nature in its natural state. It is true. It is open. It is accepting. The fronts of these homes face the grasslands, the trees, the stream—the view unchallenged. It is here where trust can begin.
  • Landscaping Celebrates a Sensory-Rich Curriculum: The Bancroft Campus offers walking trails, bike/trike paths, gardens, planting beds, and an area earmarked for a future horse barn, pavilion, additional walking trails, and actual working farm fields. The Campus is hands-on, eye opening, and alive with sounds and smells.
  • Use of Natural Materials Extends Messaging: The use of durable natural materials, both externally and internally, supports the overriding theme of nature. Residential siding, windows, and wood panels celebrate the Bancroft campus. The color pallet consists of a variety of greens and warms woods. Color blocks are used for identity and way-finding.

Nurtured Transitions for Growth and Success. The Bancroft campus is wholly designed with a Community Center as its centerpiece. Known as The Commons, the center is a 24/7 facility including the Vocational Village, the Conference and Training Center, and spaces for fitness, arts and music. It is a shared resource among students, residents, families, staff, and public—and a highly collaborative, greatly used area. Additionally, The Commons houses a clinic and medical center providing both in and outpatient services, caring for students’ health and well-being.

In its entirety, the physical layout and navigation of the Bancroft campus supports the idea of transition. From East to West, from public areas to private—through the semipublic park, to The Commons which welcomes the greater Bancroft public, to the most private area reserved for housing, the campus itself is a transitional tool, visually setting tone and expectation.

The physical transition through the Bancroft grounds, for the students, represents their journey from home to world; from comfort to growth—from trial to success. For students’ families, the campus transition conveys an awareness of mission, earns trust and fosters a sense of greater community.

  • The Plan: The master plan and the buildings of the Bancroft Campus work together to create a series of filters: those to draw in and lead the public through the more open areas, and those meant to guide the students through their more intimate daily lives on campus. For visitors, the promenade of the entry drive leads to the broad sweep of welcoming porticos along the main green. The Commons Building, approachable and generous, invites guests to the shared spaces for art, music, and fitness. Links to the school and the Vocational Village become apparent, while exterior views acknowledge Transitional Housing and The Lindens tucked into the distance.

For residential students, days begin and end in the close comfort of their homes grouped along the green. Walking paths to the Commons Building, for school, activities, and friends, become open and accessible, visually cuing readiness for learning and working. Beyond the classrooms and activity rooms, public space expands to encourage engagement with friends, family, and guests. Sessions and days end with the return to the comfortable and familiar. For the kids at Bancroft, each day’s journey builds knowledge and trust—key ingredients for growth.

  • The Program: Programming plays a significant role in supporting transitions at Bancroft. For those at The Lindens, the most intensive unit, program elements include a smaller group of more secluded homes in a natural setting with a semi-private garden for family time, and multiple individual playground gardens for intensive one on one sessions.

The Transitional Housing area groups homes along the pond with uninterrupted views to the Commons Building, the Vocational Village and the School—providing a clear, visual connection to community.

The Commons Building draws community together—from the more sheltered wings of the school, to the mock set-ups of the Vocational Village—program elements here visualize progression; witnessing challenges, celebrating successes. The programming of the Commons provides innumerable nodes of interaction, capitalizing on every opportunity for students to engage: a shared meal, a greeting in a corridor, a cacophony of musical instruments—tuned in, for moments in time, at Bancroft.

Abundant Opportunities for Sensory Learning. Student-centric, yet pedagogically diverse, Bancroft offers a wide array of experiential learning. Nature-based outdoor opportunities compliment highly specialized indoor classrooms. Vocational settings are also available to master lifetime and work skills.

  • The Classrooms: Experience has led to the realization of many universals in the design of learning environments for children with autism:
    • Wider corridors and larger classrooms accommodate gross motor skill challenges while more effectively supporting a lower student to teacher ratio.
    • Classrooms’ physical structures and atmospheric climates are flexible and customizable to students’ ever-changing needs. Flexible room set-ups respond to teachers’ and students’ styles and requirements.
    • Fine motor skill development requires the use of many manipulatives—increased and flexible storage accommodates objects like baskets, balls and bikes, instead of paper and books.
    • Water is critical element in classrooms, used for hygiene, clean-up and food preparation – each classroom includes a bathroom. Robust plumbing infrastructure also supports centralized kitchens, laundry, and shower facilities.
    • Daylight is pure, peaceful and calming, except when it is distracting, intrusive and irritating. To relieve sensitivity to light— its spectrum, brightness and source—light is concealable and controllable through shades, fixture configuration, and dimming.
    • Orderly, repetitive patterns soothe. Evidenced in ceiling tiles, floor patterns, wall treatments, and window placement. Musical rhythms are particularly appealing.
    • Those with autism may be generators of sound, or have sensitivities to sound. Non-distracting, cleanable, out-of-reach, acoustic treatments are best. Cushioned sheet vinyl flooring is maintenance and acoustic friendly.
    • Color pallet reflects peace and calm. Paint is non-toxic, low odor. Tactile materials are soft, but durable and easy to clean with limited seams to pose distractions.
    • Customizable Spaces: Task-oriented rooms at Bancroft have been transformed into an airport security gate, a barber shop, and a dentist’s office, enabling students to experience an event ahead of time, to become familiar with new procedures, acclimate to new sights and desensitize to new sounds such as hair-clippers or dental equipment. Often in response to a real-life need or opportunity, Bancroft is able to customize instruction in these customizable spaces.
    • Calming Spaces: Sometimes, students just need to take a break, and each has their unique habits or facilitators. A collection of smaller rooms can be fitted-out with a student’s particular music, repetitive sound, lighting effect or soft furnishing.
    • Decentralized Indoor Learning: Beyond the more formal classrooms, Bancroft’s indoor programing offers art and music therapy rooms, where doors open to outdoor space for experiencing and creating art and music in a garden setting. An indoor pool accommodates aquatic physical therapy and water-play, while the wellness area includes a gymnasium and fitness center to promote the importance of daily exercise and healthy lifestyle routines. Gross motor-skill facilities and indoor playrooms are also available.
    • Outdoor Discoveries: Outdoor opportunities consist of sensory walking trails and bike/trike paths, raised planting beds, gardens, and playgrounds and picnic spots. Positive reinforcement and reward spaces are distributed throughout campus.
    • The Vocational Village: Bancroft also offers multiple spaces wherein life and vocational skills are taught—The Vocational Village creates mock setups emulating a home, an office, a neighborhood—providing students with a bridge to the real world of independence, self-determination, and meaningful vocation. Strong community relations realize vocational opportunities in nearby shops and offices. Volunteers abound from the local business, to the surrounding community of residents, seniors, and service organizations. Together, they form the Community of Bancroft.

Our Best and Highest Selves

The Bancroft Pediatric Campus is at once a serene backdrop and strategic tool to engage and elevate each child to his or her best and highest self. The design of the campus creates a fine balance and transition between providing students with a safe and nurturing environment, while presenting mock and real life opportunities to encourage growth and evolution. Infused with nature. Inimitable nurturing. Bancroft. When architecture supports mission—when it enables teachers, empowers students and enlightens families—it has reached its highest purpose, its best self.