Scattered across a 53-acre estate, peeking out from behind mature trees and lurking alongside a Victorian hunting lodge, is a series of strange wooden structures.

All are made from the same simple materials, each one crafted over the course of a few hectic days and ranging from deceptively simple to clever and complex. Some have been used to shelter from the weather, others to climb over; some might become imaginary homes or, for those most in need – a protective place to open up and talk.

Every year for the past decade, the grounds of an outdoor learning centre near Biggar have offered new architecture students at Strathclyde University a chance to explore their raw creativity – and fledgling construction skills – by providing open space to create their first "commissioned" structures.

And in what has turned out to be an unexpected but very successful partnership, young visitors to Wiston Lodge – many with autism spectrum disorders or from such troubled or poor urban backgrounds that they have never before enjoyed playing in the great outdoors – have quietly cemented their complex needs into the minds of the next generation of architects.

As a result, the architecture students are said to leave the outdoor centre having learned a subtle yet valuable career lesson in how their skills can bring positive benefits for people struggling with often hidden problems.

The unique partnership is now preparing to mark its decade with a photographic retrospective of the students’ work which will showcase scores of inventive structures made down the years.

However, it is the unseen benefits that the partnership has brought both to hopeful architects and the young users of Wiston Lodge that is at the heart of the celebration.

According to Derek Hill, director of undergraduate studies, at Strathclyde University’s Department of Architecture, rather than consciously teaching students to design for people with special needs, the Wiston Lodge exercise helps to embed an understanding of how design can impact positively and negatively which it’s hoped will linger throughout their careers.

“We introduce them to Wiston Lodge, the place and the people. And they very quickly get a flavour of what it's about and what their agenda is,” he says.

“By engaging with a live client in that first project as students, the message is that design and inclusivity in design doesn’t come from an academic process, it comes from the client.”

The project takes place within the first few weeks of students beginning their university course – in some cases, just weeks after they have left school.

As well as helping to create a bond among classmates from diverse backgrounds, the challenge to fulfil a real brief for a "live" client, to design their structure, hand-build it and test it, often stretches the students’ abilities to the limit.

By making the Wiston Lodge project the students’ first design challenge, it’s hoped that as well as gaining early experience of a real-life design challenge, the students will go on to naturally approach future projects with autistic and other special needs users in mind.

“We hope it's embedded in their thinking, rather than forced on them, and we like to think it becomes part of their standard sense of responsibility and standard response to a design brief,” adds Mr Hill.

“As architects, there’s a duty of care and we need to be mindful and respectful regardless of level of ability, whether physical or otherwise.”

The project was launched a decade ago to give new architecture students a hands-on taste of their future career. However, it rapidly evolved to become a key part of the degree course, bringing additional benefits for both students and users of Wiston Lodge.

Mr Hill adds: “We are unique in that this is how we start their education and everything they do from that point on, they can relate back to that process.

“It’s also unique in that we have for a decade worked on the same project with the same client in the same location, and probably worked with somewhere between 700 to 800 students.”

Students are given a brief to create a structure that can be of use to the young people attending Wiston Lodge. Over the course of five weeks, each creates an individual design before teams select the most appropriate ones to build using identical, basic materials.

Down the years, around 100 of the wooden structures have been made and although some have been consumed by the elements, dozens remain dotted around the grounds. Often the wooden structures artfully mirror their surroundings, with some framing an attractive view or echoing the bend and flow of overhead branches.

Many have become long-standing favourites for some of Wiston Lodge’s vulnerable young visitors who have adopted them, treated them and painted them so they can remain standing for years to come.

Far from just interesting structures, the students’ designs are included in the outdoor centre’s range of sport, art and music activities designed to build confidence and a sense of achievement for young people who often struggle in traditional learning environments.

“The each serve a different purpose,” says Jonny Sutherland, managing director of Wiston Lodge. “Some are shelters, some are seats, some are climbed over and many are like works of art.

“While Derek sets the students his premise of what he is looking for from them, and I set mine – that these structures have to be safe and fit for purpose – the rest comes from the students’ heads.

“We don’t exclusively work with kids on the autistic spectrum, but we talk about that with the students. They then produce these magical things.”

Incredibly, over the ten years since the partnership began and with hundreds of students involved, no two wooden structures have turned out the same.

As a sign of the impact Wiston Lodge has, Mr Hill points out that many students return to the theme of designing for users with special needs in their final year projects.

“These are students who are just a summer holiday away from being school children are asked to mature really quickly to build a structure in a short time with a live client,” adds Mr Hill.

“This is making our students more socially aware of the implications and impacts that the decisions they might take as designers - good or bad – can have on the end user.”