Susan Chung, PhD



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How to Build a Sensory Well-Being Hub and Sensory Cocoon: An Open Source Instruction Guide

How to Build a Sensory Well-Being Hub and Sensory Cocoon: An Open Source Instruction Guide

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In September 2017, a Chicago public high school became a testing ground for sensory well-being. HKS designers and researchers collaborated with special education experts, academics and scientific advisors to design and build a Sensory Well-being Hub, a place of respite to help students with autism and developmental disabilities recover from sensory stressors and reach equilibrium in school.

The pro bono design and research project—a public-private partnership between Chicago Public Schools, the Lane Tech College Prep High School Alumni Association, the ASID Foundation, dozens of consultants and in-kind materials donors and Citizen HKS, our firm’s social impact initiative—outlined an ambitious and empathic goal: to improve the lives of people with sensory processing challenges.

The Hub was designed to understand better what students need from a sensory room. The Hub is organized into three zones:  active, respite and cocoon (a free-standing microstructure). The design is completely freestanding, comprised of metal scaffolding that resembles a high-tech playset, built with readily available materials.

The Hub’s purpose is not to entertain, but to calm students and help them “reset” from stressful states of over- or under-stimulation, recover from sensory stressors and refocus on classroom learning. The Hub is made up of freestanding Wall Modules where various features hang on adaptable panels as sensory interventions:  engaging musical instruments, a Light Brite wall, soothing fidget toys, and other interactive and virtual elements. Other interventions are provided unanchored throughout such as a weighted blanket and bean bag, trampoline, and a spun chair.

The Sensory Cocoon, prototyped first in the HKS Lab by our research and fabrication team, enables students to escape an overstimulating environment and darken their surroundings in solitude. After designing and installing the Sensory Well-being Hub, HKS studied how high school students used it. With the support of an ASID Transformation Grant, our research team created a sensor network to track student responses to sensory input in real-time, without intrusion. The sensor and observational data informed critical concepts for designing spaces for sensory well-being, and our next-generation design for a sensory cocoon, with the overarching goal to create an affordable, scalable and replicable prototype for application in other schools and public spaces, anywhere in the world.

For more information on the Sensory Well-being Hub research study, please see our report below.

From the onset, we intended to share our findings and enable other people to build sensory hubs and sensory cocoons.

The following open-source instructions make a Sensory Hub accessible to all. HKS offers these step-by-step instructions to assemble two elements first constructed in the Sensory Well-being Hub: a Wall Module and Sensory Cocoon. These instructions are intended for people with intermediate to advanced assembly skills similar to expo or stage assemblies. For assistance, our design and research teams are available to answer your questions, or you can commission HKS to build a Sensory Well-being Hub for you. Contact us at [email protected].

To download the guide, please fill in your information at the bottom of the page.

Conclusion and Recent Updates

A respite space doesn’t have to be prescribed or predetermined, expensive or proprietary. A variety of off-the-shelf materials and interventions are available to schools or organizations that wish to create similar respite spaces, tailored to your needs.

We refined our original Sensory Cocoon design and created Version 2.0, which made its debut at SXSW EDU in March 2019.  The second version looked at how the freestanding structure could support a more immersive experience that could be tuned to discrete sensory inputs. The design included technology to project video of natural scenes with associate ambient lighting and sound. We preselected scenes to offer users options from which they could choose. These included: a relaxing sunrise,  treetops swaying in the wind, and an aquatic scene of an undersea reef. The shape also evolved, as we decided to skin the structural frame with a different panelization and faceted design anchored to the nodal hubs. You can read more about the exhibit below.

HKS’ Sensory Well-Being Hub Awarded EDRA CORE Certification

Sensory Well-Being for Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities: Creating (and Testing) a Sensory Well-Being Hub

Sensory Well-Being for Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities: Creating (and Testing) a Sensory Well-Being Hub

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What is the Aim 

Developmental disabilities—e.g., autism spectrum disorders (ASD), cerebral palsy—involve early onset of physical and/or cognitive impairments and often accompany abnormal sensory processing. One in 59 U.S. children is estimated to have ASD, and those with ASD tend to have more atypical sensory processing. High sensory stimulation in schools can interfere with students’ learning. A sensory room may help both hyper and hyposensitive students re-engage with learning using sensory interventions.

At Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago, about 60, 14-21-year-old diverse learners with developmental disabilities were in the special education program. The school wished for a sensory room, and Citizen HKS worked on the project pro bono.

The insufficient evidence on the efficacy of sensory rooms made us reframe the challenge: Can we design a scalable and flexible prototype that can be implemented in various learning environments and host a wide range of sensory interventions? Can we assess the efficacy of various sensory interventions in the hub and the hub as a whole? Can we propose an informed menu of design choices for specific individuals based on the data? And finally, can we investigate what impacts this project generates?

This study aims to create and test the efficacy of a sensory well-being hub prototype for diverse learners. The objectives are to:

1. Create an adaptable prototype for the unique needs of diverse learners. 
2. Identify:

3. Assess changes of students’, parents’, staff’s well-being and staff’s job satisfaction over time. 

What We Did

Design and research were closely interwoven and iterative contrast to the traditional approach of research, design and then post-occupancy evaluation. Rooted from the double-diamond approach by Design Council, the triple-diamond illustrates the diverging and converging cycles. 

A mixed-methods approach was used including literature reviews, expert interviews, surveys, focus groups, field observations, sensor data and archival hub-visit logs and student records during an academic year after the installation. A scientific advisory summit invited six global experts, designers, and researchers to share insights and feedback on the hub design. Computational design and in-house fabrication, strategic design partnerships, simulations, and scenario testing supported the design process. Parent consent for data collection was acquired after research approvals. In addition to aggregated-data analysis, individual-level analyses were performed to create PlaceRx — that is, a set of personalized recommendations of sensory interventions.

What We Found

The design principles reflect the findings from literature review and the scientific advisory summit:

The sensory hub was a demountable prototype consisting of three zones: active and respite zones and the cocoon with tensile fabric seating & an interactive media wall.

Summary of our findings from the yearlong study are as follows:

  1. Students’ hub usage varied widely, suggesting the need for a one-size-fits-one approach.
  2. The cocoon serves as a semi-enclosed microenvironment that reduces sound and illumination levels. Sound levels were lower by 3 dB(A).
  3. Some students obsessed over the smallest anomaly that became a stressor for them.
  4. Compression and proprioceptive interventions were the most sought.
  5. The beanbag & weighted blanket, the cocoon with tensile fabric & media wall, and fidget wall were most utilized.
  6. Sensory intervention usage varied by ASD vs. non-ASD students, by situations and and by sensory profiles.
  7. Students’ well-being in school showed a trend of improvement, and ASD students’ emotional well-being improved between the two semesters after construction, suggesting cumulative effects.
  8. Hub usage may be subject to school’s policy of hub usage, staff’s comprehension of sensory interventions, and perceived eligibility of hub visits.
  9. Unobtrusive measurement via sensors has an untapped opportunity for research using vulnerable populations.


  1. A prototype kit-of-parts sensory well-being hub with design principles.
  2. A research report.
  3. A tool to use insights from sensory profiles and hub & sensory-intervention usage to create PlaceRX.

What the Findings Mean

The following are guidelines for designers:

The cocoon will keep evolving and be deployed into various environments. Going forward, we see sensory well-being as a core mandate of ALL built environments.


Team Members:
Dr. Giyoung Park
Dr. Upali Nanda
Jonathan Essary
Lisa Adams
Melissa Hoelting
Sean Ahlquist

American Society of Interior Designers
Lane Tech Alumni Association

O. Wayne Reynaud


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Stories From SXSW EDU 2019: What We Learned

Stories From SXSW EDU 2019: What We Learned

I have always loved stories. As a kid, I regularly holed-up in my room to devour a stack of books and would totally lose myself between the pages of a good novel. As a young adult, podcasts became the background music to life’s routines – This American Life during the morning commute, Hidden Brain at the gym, and Fresh Air while cooking dinner. Today, I look and listen for stories in unconventional places – during meetings at work, in passing moments with neighbors, in brands that I follow.

It should not have surprised me, then, that my SXSW EDU experience was peppered with stories. Storytelling was the thread that seemed to connect all the bits and pieces of my week in Austin. The most poignant came from a friend and former colleague who, over dinner, told of a former student who came to him just a week before graduation and confessed that he couldn’t read. The young man, a popular and engaged student, somehow never learned the skill and had found a way to fly under the radar. Soon, he would be catapulted into adulthood virtually illiterate.

In its simplest form, storytelling is how we make meaning of the world. Through keynotes, sessions, the Expo, and happenstance moments at SXSW EDU, I was reminded of the power of storytelling to impel empathy, to provoke learning, and to rouse inspiration.


Storytelling helps us forge common understanding.

Patrick Awuah, the Founder and President of Ashesi University College in Ghana, shared his story during Tuesday’s morning keynote and left the audience contemplating a series of challenges and opportunities that have marked his journey. Awuah was raised in Ghana but came to the United States for college, arriving with $50 in his pocket and a few belongings. He hailed a cab from the airport to Swarthmore College, soon realizing that he had “arrived to the U.S. with 50 minutes of cash” as the taxi meter ticked. His experience is not unlike that of countless first-generation college students, international college students, really most college students who are strapped for cash in a pricey postsecondary quagmire.

Awuah went on to share his deep commitment to changing the leadership core of Ghana by developing a new generation of ethical and entrepreneurial leaders at Ashesi. He told a story of Ashesi’s early days when a female student ran for president of the Student Government Club and lost, even though her peers reported that she was more capable than her male challenger. The experience led Awuah and his faculty to initiate a conversation with students about what constitutes good leadership and to subsequently overhaul the curriculum in response. A few years later, a female student won the Student Government Club election with 75% of the vote. His story spoke both to bias regarding women in power and to an institution’s capacity for reflection and change.


Storytelling helps us discover new things.

In the session Storytelling for Impact, a panel of folks who leverage storytelling with young people made a compelling case for its value as a learning tool. Storytelling is foundational to memory and cognition – storytelling helps to make meaning of content. And yet in education, we typically default to the formulaic five-paragraph essay as the vehicle by which storytelling happens.

Michael Hernandez, an award-winning high school cinema and journalism teacher in Los Angeles, rejects the formula and instead develops the storytelling chops of his students through multimedia creation. The basics of good writing – idea generation, content curation, structure, editing – underpin storytelling in any form, whether an advertisement or a documentary or an e-book. The results of his work with students is astounding. Several years ago, he led a trip to Vietnam, a significant experience for his students, particularly those who were on their inaugural journey outside of Western culture. He encouraged them to closely observe, to ask questions, to carefully document every aspect of the trip. His students were humbled and produced a moving 10-minute documentary titled, There is Light, a profound example of storytelling as learning.

Brett Pierce, the Executive Director of Meridian Stories and former producer at Sesame Workshop, challenged educators to create stories around curricular goals and release students to experiment with multimedia. “Storytelling through videos,” he said, “is the literacy of their generation.” His work at Meridian Stories, a nonprofit dedicated to providing students with meaningful media-creation opportunities, elevates and celebrates storytelling in ways that are relevant to young people.


Storytelling helps us birth new ideas.

SXSW EDU offers a platform for entrepreneurs, designers, and the everyday attendee who wants to flex a creative muscle to develop and test new ideas. This is perhaps the best part of SXSW: that folks have the chance to entertain wild ideas in the company of like-minded trailblazers.

The 24-Hour Playwriting Challenge, a session for attendees to write and produce a play in just one day, exemplified how storytelling can foster new ideas. Over the course of 24 hours, six groups explored issues of equity and social justice, particularly in the context of education, and wrote five-minute plays that were performed by a troupe of professional actors. My favorite was Johan’s Web, the story of an elementary school boy (Johan) with a working single mom and a baby sister. He has a homework assignment to read the last three chapters of Charlotte’s Web but his attempt to tackle the assignment is thwarted when his mom must take an extra shift at work, and he’s left to care for his sister. As a former teacher, the story was familiar to me. In busy working families, students often take on many responsibilities that can take precedence over homework. The story left me wondering, how might we reimagine homework? How might we design homework in such a way that is accessible and attainable for students who are juggling work, caregiving, and the like?

The Learn by Design Competition, a celebration of groundbreaking work at the intersection of learning and the built environment, featured seven projects that used stories about the student experience to design inventive and responsive solutions. Project Lemonaid, for example, is a conceptual project committed to using mobile solutions (a la food truck) to meet the enormous unmet need in mental health on college campuses. Hannah Park, Assistant Professor of Design, Visual Communication, and Interaction Design at the University of Kansas and the lead on Project Lemonaid, told the story of a former student who faced addiction and mental health issues. She gave the student a higher grade than he had earned, worried that anything lower might exacerbate his struggle. Park used this story to give dimension to the mental health crisis on college campuses and to point to Project Lemonaid as part of the solution.

Cocoon 2.0: Designing Respite Space for a Cacophonic World

Cocoon 2.0: Designing Respite Space for a Cacophonic World

According to the Centers for Disease Control, about one in six children in the U.S. has a developmental disability, and one in 68 has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). We believe our role and obligation as designers is to improve lives, especially for vulnerable populations. In fall 2017, a Chicago high school became a testing ground for sensory well-being. HKS designers and researchers collaborated with special education experts, academics and scientific advisors to design and build a Sensory Well-being Hub, a place of respite to help students with developmental disabilities recover from sensory stressors and reach equilibrium in school.

The pro bono design and research project – a public-private partnership between Chicago Public Schools, the Lane Tech Alumni Association, the ASID Foundation, dozens of consultants and in-kind materials donors and Citizen HKS, our firm’s social impact initiative – outlined an ambitious and empathic goal: improve the lives of people with sensory processing challenges.

To support this goal, a “Sensory Cocoon” within the Hub was developed:  it’s a mobile microenvironment that dampens exterior sound and light. This cocoon is equipped with a digital media wall system that houses a TV display with interactive sensors for gestures and touch, color-changing lights to match the scene on the TV display and a sound system – all sensory elements that can be controlled per the user’s preferences. Design goals for Cocoon 1.0 included:

HKS collaborated with Sean Ahlquist, Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Ahlquist created the ongoing research project Social Sensory Architectures on the tensile textile attachment within Cocoon 1.0. This key feature provided tactile interaction and seating for cocoon users. Ahlquist’s multisensory textile environments project was the SXSW Eco Conference’s 2016 Place By Design Speculative + Prototyping winner.

The HKS research team, with additional support from an ASID Foundation Transform grant, followed 25 of Lane Tech College Prep High School’s 219 diverse learners who range in age from 14-22, throughout the 2017-18 school year. We studied which sensory interventions the students used most and measured the impact the Hub had on the well-being of students, parents, teachers and staff.

Study Results

The teachers and paraprofessional aides reported they used the Hub for both preventive (through daily scheduled visits) and therapeutic (when students were distressed) purposes. The students visited the Hub to calm down, resulting in their well-being at school trending upward between the two semesters, even though overall well-being scores did not change.

The cocoon, as its own micro-environment, was one of the Hub’s most frequently utilized interventions. Both students with and without ASD preferred it. Sensory avoiding students tended to use the cocoon more often, implying that the cocoon provided respite for hyper-sensitive students due to the lower lighting and sound levels. Under stress, students preferred calming elements with a strong tactile component, specifically compression/deep touch qualities, which are present in the textile attachment in the cocoon.

Cocoon 1.0: Tensile Textile Attachment and Media Wall

Cocoon Metamorphosis

With research results in hand, our team went back to the HKS Lab to modify our custom-designed cocoon. Key takeaways indicated that the cocoon’s tent-like structure could become lighter weight, potentially more mobile as well as fully enclosable, thus enhancing its sound insulating and visual separation qualities.

The cocoon’s partnering media wall displays interactive nature videos to create a self-contained respite environment. The cocoon microenvironment is tunable: providing occupants agency to adjust aspects of the environment for ambient lighting color and intensity, audio, and projected visual imagery or video.

Cocoon 2.0 measures just over 8 feet tall with an 11 foot, four-inch circumference. It’s large enough for a paraprofessional aid or parent, a student and offers wheelchair access. The new version is mounted on a lighter structural frame, approximately half the weight of Cocoon 1.0, with 2×2 lumber available at most local suppliers. An exterior canopy extends over the entrance to minimize the amount of open gap to further reduce sound and light intrusion.

Once again, HKS collaborated with Ahlquist on a tensile textile structure that can insert within Cocoon 2.0. This new, interactive textile structure can occupy Cocoon 2.0 or it can be a free-standing installation – it will be available to experience alongside HKS’ Cocoon 2.0 demo at SXSW EDU’sPlayground March 4-6 in Austin, Texas.

SXSW EDU’s Playground is a key conference expo component and interactive space showcasing innovative strategies to stimulate student engagement. Within Cocoon 2.0, SXSW EDU visitors can experience a menu of audio or visual biophilic scenes, user-controlled by a hand-held digital device that’s intuitive to use. A beach at sunset, mountains above the tree line, or an ocean reef scene are projected within the cocoon, bringing nature to the user – a departure from the touch screen interactivity required of Lane Tech students due to the wall mounted video display screen outside of the cocoon.

Our research has enhanced what we learned at Lane Tech: a respite space doesn’t have to be prescribed or predetermined, expensive or proprietary. The Sensory Well-being project aligns with Citizen HKS’ mission to meet the needs of underserved communities. The HKS Cocoon prototype does just that – we’re making our plans available to schools or organizations that wish to create similar respite spaces.

Contact [email protected] to learn more.

Building With Data: How HKS’ LINE Innovation Team Drives Change Using Algorithms, Creativity, Nature

Fast Company: HKS’ Sensory Well-Being Hub a 2018 Innovation by Design Finalist

Architectural Record Honors Dr. Upali Nanda of HKS With 2018 Innovator Award


Upali Nanda, PhD



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Kate Renner


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Center for Advanced Design Research and Evaluation


The Sensory Well-Being Hub at Chicago’s Lane Tech College Prep High School

The Sensory Well-Being Hub at Chicago’s Lane Tech College Prep High School

For a moment, think back to your 15-year-old self and your typical day in high school. The school bell sounds, and instantly, sensory input comes at you from all angles: conversations and laughter ricochet through the hallways; lockers, doors and books slam shut. An accidental shoulder bump, olfactory overload and varying degrees of light and temperature—the mix of it all is mildly irritating for some, and can be utterly overwhelming for others.

Now imagine a teen with a developmental disability or autism in that same environment. Everyday commotion and sensory input impacts them in more profound ways and can result in behavioral problems, compounding their social interactions, communication difficulties or repetitive behaviors. It’s stressful not only for these students, but also for their teachers, who are charged with helping them learn and manage themselves throughout a hectic day.

With one in every 59 children diagnosed with autism and one in six children diagnosed with a developmental disability (according to the CDC), we recognized an opportunity to serve a marginalized segment of our society. At Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago, we created a place for diverse learners experiencing behavioral issues to recuperate, find equilibrium and return to the classroom, ready to re-engage. The Sensory Well-Being Hub is a small space with big ambitions: to help improve the lives of people who live with sensory processing challenges.

Believed to be the first of its kind in an American public high school, the Sensory Well-Being Hub was designed and fabricated at no cost to Chicago taxpayers, and opened in September 2017. It was funded by donations from HKS, HKS employees, the American Society of Interior Designers, the Lane Tech Alumni Association and in-kind donations from HKS’ generous design industry partners, as well as contributions from scientific advisors who helped advance the design concept.

The Sensory Well-Being Hub is comprised of a demountable framing structure resembling a high-tech playset, providing places, or “hubs”, for activities ranging from quiet to stimulating. The hub offers a unique, modular solution with a purpose not to entertain, but to allow students to refocus and calm down on their own terms.

Through our research, we learned that diverse learners each have unique preferences of what they need and desire from a respite environment, and the hub enables each student to create an experience that works for them in order find balance. Audio, visual, kinesthetic and tactile features in the hub help students “reset” from a state of either hyper- or hypo-stimulation. A media wall system houses a touch screen monitor, color changing lights and a sound system—all sensory elements that are controlled and customized per the user’s preferences.

Zones within the room provide respite through tactile sensory stimulation via textured panels, musical instruments, a Light Brite wall, a peg wall and a curtain of rubber tubing. Respite areas include a movable “cocoon” space where soothing sounds, lighting and biophilic videos enable students to escape their surroundings in solitude.

An ASID Foundation Transform grant will enable us to research how students use the hub over the course of the school year. What we learn will be applied to modify the installation and improve the hub’s next iteration. Because the circumstances described earlier play out in high schools and thousands of other public spaces inundated by a glut of sensory input, our goal is to build upon what we learn at Lane Tech to create an affordable and easily replicable approach that can be shared and fabricated in other places worldwide.

This modular design program will be available for use by anyone who wants to create a sensory well-being hub where one might be needed—schools, shopping centers, hospitals and airports all come to mind as places where such a respite space would be welcomed. The beauty of the modular design is its flexibility; it can be replicated in different settings without the need for hard construction.

The Sensory Well-Being Hub at Lane Tech gave HKS an opportunity to engage with the community and bring our design and research teams together for a higher social purpose. We hope this one small space accomplishes big things, one diverse learner at a time.