Architect Maia Lemlij of XUL Architecture, who is diagnosed with ADHD, tells us what those who have it should think about when designing their home.
17 November 2022
Images: Current home of Maia Lemlij of XUL Architecture. She shares that she may have done things a little differently now, with the knowledge she has gained
Text by Janice Seow
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is a condition that falls within the spectrum of neurodiversity. As a spectrum, it means there are no hard or fast rules about who experiences exactly which symptoms and when.
ADHD primarily affects the part of your brain that deals with doing stuff and managing yourself: time management, working memory, self-monitoring, task initiation, planning, organisation and impulse/emotional control.
“Many people with neurodivergent conditions process everyday sensory information such as sounds, sights and smells differently,” says Maia Lemlij, Director of London-based XUL Architecture who herself suffers from ADHD.
According to her, the way in which our homes are designed can make it harder for people with this disorder. Issues could arise from the way the home has been laid out, or the way it’s been decorated or even in the storage organisation. And because ADHD looks so different in everyone, a solution for one may not work for another.
“Understanding the challenges faced by people with ADHD and other conditions allows us to explore how architecture and interior design can really help to make a home a calm environment for a neurodiverse mind,” the architect explains.
Maia grew up not knowing about her ADHD. At a young age, she needed her room to be sparse and all she had was a bed and a desk with nothing on it. She could not have any scented products and there were no posters or decoration as she got distracted easily. The walls were a pale grey like the rest of the house and it never occured to her to paint it any differently.
It was the same when she grew up and moved to London where, as she says, she never accumulated much more than she could fit in a small Ikea wardrobe. Then she got married, and kids and a dog came along, and ‘stuff’ naturally accumulated – other people’s stuff and not her own.
Then, two years ago, she was diagnosed with ADHD. “I started to dissect my life and understand how much of my life’s behavioural patterns and challenges were my ADHD all along. A lot of it, as it turns out. As I explore the impact of ADHD on my day-to-day life, I realise that the spaces I inhabit have a big influence on how I feel,” says Maia.
Maia and her husband (also an architect) had designed their house when their oldest daughter was just 1.5 years old and the whole ground floor was open plan, because it seemed the best way to be able to keep an eye on kids, or to have a party.
Being blessed with crafty kids, the place soon filled up with art and art tools. “The thing with open plan is that stuff travels, and it travels particularly well when there is not a clear place for things to be, or when you have enough flat surfaces to put things down ‘just for a minute’ on your way to do something else,” says Maia.
“All the things I see all the time are visual information my brain somehow has to process. It is over-stimulating, distracting and exhausting,” she continues. “I am now carefully thinking about how I can regain control of my house. As I understand better how my brain operates, my house needs to provide the right environment for my neurodivergent family. I am not saying open plan and neurodiversity don’t go together, but we need to be mindful that too much open plan might be overwhelming for some of us.”
A Marie Kondo approach to organisation does not necessarily work for someone with ADHD as it might be difficult to keep up says Maia. It is therefore important to be realistic and find solutions that will be sustainable in the longer run. “The more the architecture does for you, the less it will rely on your own organisational skills,” she says.
XUL now uses these questions to help frame a brief when designing homes for people with ADHD.
1.Do I need a space to retreat?
2. How much do I want to see? Do I find particular items distracting? What could go behind doors or even glass cabinets?
3. Everything should have a place and you want to make it clear to everyone what that place is. It might help if you make an inventory of the different things you own and try to categorise them. Or think of “a day in your life” and think about how things move around as your day goes by. For example, where do you put your things as you walk into your house?
4. Are you sensitive to light? Think of your home’s orientation and how you mitigate the entry of direct sunlight at different times of the day.
5. Are you sensitive to noise? Think of acoustics and providing the right noise insulation for different functions. For example, if you plan to work downstairs, think of where you are placing your desk in relation to appliances. You might want to add additional acoustic insulation on walls and floors. Think also about materials and surfaces (i.e. squeaking noises from furniture moving around on hard floors)
6. Are you sensitive to smell? This might have an impact on open-plan kitchens for example.
7. Choose artificial lighting carefully as flickering artificial lights can be problematic for some people.
8. Are you sensitive to flooring textures? Do you like to walk barefoot or not?
9. Choose your colour palette carefully. Accents of colour might work better than lots of colour and clashing patterns. For flooring and other finishes, you might want to choose something that doesn’t have a very heavy pattern.
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