DFCM & Utah Valley University Melisa Nellesen Center for Autism – Orem Utah
Official Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony – the First Step in Furthering Autism Education in Utah
The first of its kind in Utah, Utah Valley University’s (UVU) new Melisa Nellesen Center (the Center) for Autism had its official ribbon cutting ceremony on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. At 15,000 sq. ft., the new center is designed by Curtis Miner Architecture of Pleasant Grove, Utah as a state-of-the-art, safe learning environment, where UVU students will learn how to teach autistic children and autistic students will be able to take classes specially tailored to their needs.
Numerous people were in attendance for the official opening of one of the first State buildings, and the only building on campus, that is 100% donor funded. Attendees celebrating the first autism school in Utah included the State of Utah Division of Facilities Construction & Management (DFCM) representatives and building donors such as Vivint, DoTerra, Hearstwood, and Clear Horizons. KUTV , The Herald, ABC4, and FOX13 were there and had many nice things to say (click on their links for access to their articles).
The Center is unique in the world of autism education, and even more unique for a Higher Education program in Utah. It is rare for students to be trained to work with people on the autistic spectrum in the same building where those on the spectrum are being educated. It is also uncommon for these two groups to be allowed to interact as part of their daily course work. These new parameters present an exceptional opportunity for autism education to advance more quickly than it ever has before. To support this effort, the building is designed to have state-of-the-art, collaboration-focused UVU student classrooms that encourage group-based learning. These UVU classrooms are adjacent to the classrooms for the autistic children to allow for interaction, observation, and deeper understanding.
The Center has three primary functional objectives:
- Autism Education in Utah: Educate the community about autism
- Teacher Training for Autism Education in Utah: Train the teachers of autistic children
- Learning Environment for Autistic Children in Utah: Provide a state-of-the-art, safe learning environment for autistic children
To meet these objectives, the building had to be visible to the community, easy to find, and it had to be open and inviting. By placing the building on a main street and by using two stories of glass at the main entry, the approach to the building is transparent and welcoming. The front wall of glass is placed on an angle to recognize the striving for balance and stability in the lives of those who deal with autism. And because glass on such an angle does not reflect the bright sky and become obscure, the building feels open and accessible. Finally, the main entry is covered by a large roof overhang representing the protection and shelter available in the center.
An Architect’s Perspective
At Curtis Miner Architecture, the Center ranks among one of our most favorite projects. Our client, Utah Valley University, the Center’s Director, Teresa Cardon, and her team were great at making decisions and valued our expertise in designing for the autistic community. They inspired our entire team to be creative in coming up with ways to accommodate the building program and its special occupants.
Consideration of Safety: During our initial meeting with Teresa and her team, we learned that one of the most important considerations in the design of the new Center was to keep the young children safe. It was this issue, in fact, that led to a redesign of the entire site and building. With the Center positioned adjacent to the McKay Education Building, we were able to re-purpose an existing parking area as a safe and efficient loading and unloading zone for the children. We were also able to connect the play areas in the rear of the property to create a secure outdoor activity space. The play space itself is designed with flowers and plants that do not attract bees.
For UVU students who are on the autism spectrum, the Passages Program Lounge provides a secure place for social interaction and safe environment to rest from the stresses of a major college campus.
Introduction of Daylight and Color: The preschool and kindergarten classrooms are located in the new building, and the classroom for grades 1-3 is located in the McKay Education Building. Each of these classrooms include teaching spaces with natural daylight – soft daylight that comes from the north and east sides of the buildings, activity areas with appropriate colors and textures, sensory and calming areas, and each classroom are treated to ensure that outside sources of sound are minimized.
There is a broad range of how we each experience the world around us. Those not on the autistic spectrum tend to prefer environments that are open, transparent, and connected. But we’ve learned that people who are on the autistic spectrum experience the world through “amplified” senses. Touch can be disturbing, sounds seem louder and more disruptive, and distracting movements or colors can be debilitating.
Designed to Limit Distractions: Part of this building is measured and controlled to accommodate autistic children. That space is located in the north-east quadrant of the site – the quietest and safest. The windows are placed high in the wall to allow soft daylight in, but to avoid distractions by activity and movement outside the classroom.
Part of this building is open and transparent to accommodate UVU students and faculty, community members, and families. It creates movement, activity, and connectedness through the two-story entry and the open stairway that moves people through that space.
Creating Awareness: But the most important part of this project is where these two worlds meet. It is how the barriers, misunderstandings, and fear associated with autism can dissolve away. It is how this new Center can lead us all to a greater awareness and understanding of autism.
This Utah higher education classroom for autism is the first of it’s kind. It creates an opportunity for autism awareness to Utah communities and allows for the education of autistic focused teaching. Curtis Miner Architecture, a Utah higher education architect, worked closely with Utah Valley University and DFCM to develop this higher education autism center.