Design Fastened by Care
Drawing inspiration from her own life, doctoral student focuses her talents in environmental design to create therapeutic spaces for people with special needs.
by Rachel Pierce
Angela Bourne hopes to make a world of difference for people living with intellectual and developmental diversities. A seasoned professional with more than 20 years’ teaching experience, she stands out as a nontraditional doctoral student in Texas Tech University’s environmental design program.
Bourne has maintained a successful interior design practice and taught on the subject at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. Though she attained a wealth of knowledge and experience over the years, Bourne sought to bring a deeper awareness to an emerging area of design: creating therapeutic spaces for people with intellectual and developmental diversities—also referred to as IDDs—which include Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorders.
The most effective way to reach her intended audience, she decided, was to devote herself to generating and sharing insightful research. As she already held bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Bourne said she felt that she could strengthen her credentials and gain the research experience she needed by enrolling in a doctoral program.
“The timing was right, and I really felt a need to enhance my personal lifelong experience by enhancing my practical experience as an interior designer and my teaching experience with research,” she said. “I needed to fill the gap I thought I was missing; I wanted to know how to do research.”
Bourne had already been accepted into a doctoral program at another university when she heard Texas Tech environmental design assistant professor Kristi Gaines present her dissertation research at an educators conference. Gaines’ lecture turned Bourne’s attention to Texas Tech, where she eventually applied and was accepted into the environmental design doctoral program.
“I heard her speak about her work designing classrooms for children with autism, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a really good match for me,’” Bourne recalled. "One of Gaines’ professors said to me at the conference, ‘Well, why don’t you apply to Tech?’ So I did.”
Bourne also took a sabbatical from teaching to accommodate her transition to Texas Tech. She lived in Lubbock during the 2010-2011 academic year, taking a full load of courses each term in addition to working as a research assistant and a teaching assistant for Gaines. She even found time in her demanding schedule for volunteer work with intellectually challenged people at Lubbock’s High Point Village.
In 2013 the Texas Tech University provost named environmental design doctoral student Angela Bourne a Student of Integrated Scholarship. She earned a place in this distinguished group for her commitment to academic excellence and involvement in active learning experiences.
Read her Student of Integrated Scholarship profile here.
Bourne became interested in helping special needs populations largely on account of her late brother, who had Down syndrome. She explained that her brother was challenged his entire life to adjust to the surroundings of neurotypical individuals—that is, persons who do not have congenital or acquired intellectual and developmental diversities—and he relied upon her for help to adapt to his environment and learn. After her brother’s death, Bourne considered how his life might have been different had there been a community for her brother and other individuals with IDDs to learn, live, work and thrive. She believes that these kinds of communities are beneficial, encouraging unity as well as individual achievement and independence. Those reflections served to inspire her work.
“I thought, well, why don’t we design spaces for people to live in a community that’s self-sustaining; provides work opportunities; gives them a sense of purpose, of contributing, building self esteem; and also provides residential and social opportunities,” Bourne said. “Little did I know that there were these types of communities in Texas that were thriving, so that’s where I turned my research direction.”
Focusing on communities geared to people who are intellectually challenged not only established a topic for her dissertation, Bourne has also secured funding for research. She and Gaines have obtained grants from the Organization for Autism Research and from the American Society of Interior Designers to research therapeutic residential communities for people with IDDs.
“It’s participatory action research, for sure,” Bourne said. “The goal is to come up with some guidelines for architects, designers and planners to use in developing housing and entrepreneurial activities so that their population can have work opportunities, so they can contribute and give back to society.”
With support from the grant, Bourne is working on a full literature review and community schematics. She aims to complete her work by the time the grant ends in 2014. Since they received the grant last year, Bourne and Gaines have visited several supported living communities to conduct site assessments and record best practices.
“This is a new, yet desperately needed, area of research since the built environment has an effect on individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” Gaines said. “So far, we have made site visits to locations in Texas, New York and Ohio for data collection. The data collection includes tours, observation and interviews. We plan to make additional site visits over the summer.”
Bourne has seen therapeutic residential communities structured like farms, where individuals work together to raise crops and carry out other duties that contribute to sustainability. Communities also offer housing, social events, workshops and life skills classes. All the while, Bourne commented, community members have access to nature, which research has shown enhances well-being and stimulates cognitive processing, and this topic especially has drawn attention for Bourne at conferences.
“Over the last two years, I have presented at seven conferences,” Bourne said. “One of the areas of focus I really look at is the influence of nature, the outside, natural scenes. Just being in the environment—with that ‘G vitamin,’ they call it now—how therapeutic it can be for everyone, in fact, to help develop the cognitive processes so you can carry on a better quality of life. So I think there’s a lot of interest out there because I’m getting accepted into conferences. I wouldn’t even really know how to spread the word and get involved at conferences promoting research if I had not come to Texas Tech.”
In an effort to connect her scholarship and service efforts, Bourne has met with leadership at Lubbock’s High Point Village to present a residential center concept for people with IDDs. Currently, High Point Village offers workshops and camps and organizes social gatherings, however, leadership aims to develop a community that also offers housing, work opportunities and support for its aging members.
Bourne’s research into the best practices of supported living communities has been valuable to the project. One point she has emphasized is to distinguish the residential center by connecting it with the surrounding landscape. Looking for design cues, she turned to one of the area’s most treasured natural resources: cotton.
“I am especially intrigued with one of West Texas’ biggest commodities,” she said. “Its forms, textures and patterns, how the soft, fluffy part—the cotton ball, with all its loveliness—is encapsulated and supported by a structure that cocoons and protects the vulnerable soft components, to me, serves as a perfect metaphor for my philosophical approach to design intentional communities for this group.”
Though she has returned to Canada, Bourne said she will present High Point Village leadership with additional findings from her best practices analysis, so the community may raise funds for the development of a residential center.
Moreover, she has persisted in her studies from afar and is on track to graduate within the year. Researching and communicating about environmental design for people with IDDs remains central to her long-term career goals. She looks forward to presenting at conferences, and collaborating with Gaines and another graduate of Texas Tech’s environmental design program to write the tentatively titled book “Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorders.” The book is targeted to design professionals who work with individuals with autism as well as graduate students and educators.
Bourne admitted that even though she works tirelessly, she feels enriched by her scholarship. By pursuing a doctorate and a career as a scholar, she hopes to make a difference in the lives of others by advancing therapeutic environmental design.
“It’s made me realize what type of a designer I am—compassionate and considerate, ambitious about using my skills, talents and knowledge to advocate for vulnerable populations,” she said. “Moving to Lubbock and pursing my Ph.D. has really helped me fulfill my goals in this chapter of my life. I’m on to research, and I think once I get through my dissertation, I’ll have a much better chance of ‘moving mountains,’ even if it is one at a time.”
The Department of Design
The Department of Design offers two graduate degrees: a Master of Science in Environmental Design and a Doctor of Philosophy in Interior and Environmental Design.
An optional internship is offered for students who have not previously had professional experience in interior design or allied disciplines.
The College of Human Sciences is among the three largest colleges of its kind in the nation. The Department of Design is one of four departments within the college. The department includes undergraduate programs in apparel design and manufacturing, and interior design. The interior design program is accredited by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation. The Department of Design graduate faculty are nationally and internationally recognized for achievements in evidence-based design, health care and the built environment, ergonomics, sustainability, and adaptive re-use.
Rachel Pierce is Senior Editor of Research and Academic Communications for the Office of the Provost at Texas Tech University. Photos courtesy of Neal Hinkle. Video by Scott Irlbeck.