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The Impact of Sensory Design: Well-being Hub from HKS

May 14, 2020

Located on the north side of Chicago, Lane Tech College Prep High School is a four-year selective school. With a total population of over 4,000 students and around 60 diverse learners (aged 14 to 21) with developmental disabilities, HKS Architects embarked on a pro bono design and research project to improve the lives of students in their special education program.

Selected as a winner for the ASID Outcome of Design awards—which celebrates the designers and clients focused on the quantifiable effects of design—HKS’ Sensory Well-Being Hub lays the groundwork for creating accessible, impactful spaces to better address the needs of diverse learners while improving their health and mental wellbeing.

Constructed of a demountable framing structure that resembles a high-tech playset, the Sensory Well-Being Hub is designed to help students experiencing behavioral and developmental challenges, such as Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), to recuperate and find equilibrium. This project is inherently valuable for its insights on designing spaces with audio, visual, kinesthetic and tactile features for people with sensory sensitivities to reset from hyper- or hypo-stimulation.

exterior of the well-being hub
Photo: HKS’ Sensory Well-Being Hub, a winning project from ASID’s Outcome of Design Awards, supports both the Society’s message of “design impacts lives” while highlighting the vital importance of designing for occupant experience. Credit: Hannah Jaggers

The Sensory Well-Being Hub was designed with a muted color palette and is composed of three specific areas catered to different needs:

  • girl on exercise ballActive Zone: An energizing space that includes a textured wall, sound wall and rolling pins.
  • Cocoon: An original design fabricated from the HKS Lab, this semi-enclosed microenvironment structure is equipped with tensile seating and lined with double-layered acoustic panels.
  • Respite Zone: A calming space that includes projected nature images, a Lite Brite wall, a vibrating bean bag and a weighted blanket.

“Creating an adaptable, ‘do-it-yourself’ affordable solution was a game changer for institutions, like public schools, who have a great need for sensory spaces but lack funding for a conventionally constructed solution,” explains Lisa Adams, senior interior designer and principal of HKS.


“Because features affix to removable wall panels, the school can easily adapt to best suit the needs of students. It’s important to note that just like neurotypical individuals, so no two individuals with ASD are alike.


“With every new school year comes new kids with different sensory preferences. It’s important for the interface to adjust to changing user preferences for a better user experience.”


Key design outcomes include:

  • teen on trampolineImproved occupant experience and wellbeing : Students were observed to be significantly happier during the hub visit than before, with this effect carried over after returning to class. Focus was found to be significantly improved during the hub visit versus before. Students with ASD reported higher emotional wellbeing in the second semester than the first semester based on a wellbeing survey conducted following installation.
  • Improved environmental quality: Median sound-intensity levels inside the cocoon were lower than other areas by 3 dB(A). The Cocoon reduced light from the classroom and windows significantly. The temperature was stable (low 70s degrees F) across sensor locations. Median relative-humidity values were within a recommended range of 30-60% (Washington State Department of Health, 2003).
  • Compelling financial outcomes: The preliminary design concept—including a drywalled room with proprietary products—was priced over $250,000. Through reprioritization, a more accessible, affordable and modular solution significantly reduced costs to $60,000, including sensors for research, which would be unnecessary in replicated projects.
  • Improved flexibility and spatial quality: The hub’s modular design system and the mobility of the sensory Cocoon allow teachers and staff members to adapt, evolve and replicate the space as needed. The non-proprietary sensory interventions are also easily replaced if they’re underutilized or need replacement due to extensive use.

[Related: Renovated Offices Show Health and Wellness Spaces are Here to Stay]

“The best environment you can provide in a sensory space first and foremost ‘does no harm’ and provides sensory separation,” Adams states. “The Cocoon in our project provides a microenvironment where sensory information can be self-selected as desired—a nature video, soothing sounds or colored light.

interior view of hub

“Frankly, this need applies to any individual. We see a benefit to curated microenvironments in our airports, workplaces, university campuses and other civic buildings. Lately, our hearts go out to health workers dealing with extreme states of stress.  Providing a respite pod—similar to the Cocoon—can offer much needed relief, even briefly, providing a small but meaningful affordance.”

Learn more about the ASID’s Outcome of Design Awards program and view the rest of the 2020 winners at To review the HKS Sensory Well-being Hub case study in full, visit or

Read next: ASID and Haworth Leaders Discuss Evolving Workplace Culture

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About the author
American Society of Interior Designers (ASID)