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Gallaudet's campus.
Gallaudet's campus.
Rey Lopez

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How Gallaudet University’s architects are redefining deaf space

The world’s only liberal arts institution for the Deaf creates an architectural movement

To operate it, you would stand in the hallway and pull a chain. Then, inside, a lead weight would drop to the floor. Vibrations from that thunk alerted residents that someone was calling. A standard doorbell wouldn’t have worked because residents wouldn’t have heard it: Gallaudet is a university for the Deaf.

Founded in 1864, Gallaudet is still the only liberal arts institution geared to the Deaf and hard of hearing in the United States—or, for that matter, in any country (a school motto is "There is no other place like this in the world"). It is where the football huddle was invented, players shielding their hand signs from opponents’ eyes. Today, there are about 1,900 students on the Olmsted-designed campus in Northeast Washington, where American Sign Language (ASL) is the preferred mode of communication. Some are profoundly deaf; some have a degree of hearing and may have cochlear implants or use hearing aids.

For many at Gallaudet, including people who can communicate through speech, deafness is not an impairment or even an inconvenience. Deaf (with a capital D) is a cultural identity that stems from pride in signed language and what Deaf Studies professors call "Deaf ways of being," or shared sensory experiences and cultural traditions.

So the old doorbell, while a curiosity, isn’t an idle one. It’s evidence of something Deaf people have always done, which is to adapt the physical environment, designed for the hearing, so that it better suits how they interact—and, quite simply, who they are.

The vibratory doorbell long ago gave way to visual signalers that flash or dim the lights. But it’s an inspiration for the researchers involved in a design movement born at Gallaudet called DeafSpace. Now 10 years old, DeafSpace is an architectural approach that springs from the particular ways Deaf people perceive and inhabit space. It has grown from small workshops—in which participants expressed Deaf sensibilities that were well-known but had never been codified—into the key set of principles shaping new buildings and renovation projects on Gallaudet’s campus, helmed by a cross-disciplinary research institute. The principles have relevance beyond campus. About 3.5 percent of people in the U.S. have experienced significant hearing loss or deafness, but hearing problems are more common, affecting 13 percent of the population, according to the Gallaudet Research Institute. That share is likely to rise as tens of millions of Baby Boomers reach their seventies and eighties. Why should the places designed for them take hearing as a given?

The DeafSpace Design Guidelines drawn up at Gallaudet recently won an award from the International Association of Universal Design. Not bad for a university that doesn’t have an architecture school (yet). And late last year, the university launched an international design competition for remaking part of the campus and adding an iconic "gateway" at its southwest corner on Sixth Street and Florida Avenue Northeast. With a jury chaired by David Adjaye, the competition attracted 700 inquiries and has yielded an impressive shortlist: teams led by MASS Design Group, Kennedy & Violich Architecture, Marvel Architects, and Hall McKnight Architect. Deaf designers are in charge of three out of the four finalist teams. The winner will be announced this summer or fall.

In the early days of DeafSpace, researchers often referred to it as "visu-centric." Intuitively, that makes sense: visual orientation is often crucial for someone who doesn’t hear. But Hansel Bauman, the head of campus planning at Gallaudet and the co-director of the newly-established DeafSpace Institute, says he now shies away from the term. For one thing, Gallaudet has a growing number of Deaf-Blind students. And DeafSpace isn’t about just replacing the auditory with the visual—it’s about creating a rich multi-sensory environment that eases mobility, expresses identity, and enhances wellbeing.

"Only Deaf and DeafBlind people understand Deaf space because we experience it every day," notes MJ Bienvenu, a Gallaudet alum and professor of ASL and Deaf Studies. Bienvenu was among the professors and students who took part in a campus workshop in 2005 that grew into DeafSpace. Not long after, the workshop became a required class for Deaf Studies undergraduates.

Matt Malzkuhn, now a researcher and Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University, was in the first cohort of students. For his master’s thesis, he looked at how seven Deaf families customized their homes, often in similar ways.

Initially, he says, "a lot of [DeafSpace research] was externalizing what we already knew, but hadn’t explicitly labeled. My whole family is Deaf, so it’s something you already know. It’s just normal. You grow up with it." He emphasizes that the notion of disability plays no part: "We just make our own spaces, live our own lives, and we don’t put those limitations on ourselves."

Because there aren’t a great number of Deaf architects and design professionals, DeafSpace has so far engaged design experts, some of whom are hearing, to translate lived Deaf experience into recommendations. Bauman is hearing; his colleague Derrick Behm is Deaf, while Robert Sirvage, a longtime researcher, is Deaf-Blind.

Bauman came to the job sideways, by a mix of personal coincidence and architectural inclination. After graduate school at SCI-Arc, he worked on a number of high-tech buildings, including the Spallation Neutron Source, an accelerator at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Despite them hardly being the stuff of design awards, he found them fascinating, and enjoyed improving the day-to-day working environment for the scientists.

"In some ways, it's the same kind of thing we're doing here—looking at places where there's this kind of extraordinary beauty that no one's [seeing], just because, for some reason, we're always turning the other way," says Bauman, a soft-spoken man with close-cropped silver hair and the methodical air of a researcher, perhaps acquired by designing for them for so long.

Bauman’s brother Dirksen is the chair of the department of ASL and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet. When people on campus started to rethink the environment, he knew just who to call. Hansel Bauman moved from the Bay Area to Washington in 2009.

The DeafSpace approach is only starting to reveal its full potential, and the guidelines are a work in progress rather than a set of proven rules. But already, their close focus on human cognition and emotion, and on the mechanics of bodies in space, feels radical in an age of grand architectural form-making.

For Bauman, this "close thinking [about] particular situations" represents the sharpest break from the normative design process. He expanded on this idea as we sat around a table in College Hall, pointing out the pros and cons of each seat at that time of day: his and my chairs were angled away from the window (lucky us), while a Gallaudet communications officer had to sit directly across from it, blinking against the sun (unlucky her). What if these kinds of intimate spatial relationships were the starting point for architecture, not an afterthought?

"To me, that is so radically different a way of … breaking down the design process," Bauman said. "In a way, it flips [it] upside down, because now you start thinking about a building by sitting around this table."

The DeafSpace philosophy rests on five basic principles. The first is space and proximity. Deaf individuals often initiate communication with eye contact and need to maintain it over the course of a conversation. Facial expressions are important in ASL. So are body movements; to be able to sign comfortably, a person needs adequate space—more than is typically required for someone engaged in spoken conversation.

Groups of signers will naturally form circles or arcs to include everyone. They avoid long, rectangular tables, which impede views. The least Deaf-supportive space Bauman could think of, when I asked him what it might be, was the traditional classroom with straight rows of desks; that layout breaks up lines of communication, except between student and teacher. Many classrooms at Gallaudet have round or horseshoe-shaped seating arrangements. Meeting rooms may have oval desks; lecture halls are raked, and ideally have multiple aisles so an audience member can easily take the stage when he or she wants to ask a question.

What if these kinds of intimate spatial relationships were the starting point for architecture, not an afterthought?

We all instinctively seek to balance feelings of openness and enclosure. While a comfortable balance varies considerably from person to person, in general, Deaf individuals prefer to have some measure of visual control over the surrounding area. Enclosure is essential for privacy, but too much can result in isolation. A Deaf space should have semi-public areas off central gathering places and pathways, where two people can catch up or one person can enjoy a bit of solitude.

"Sensory reach," the second principle, refers to how Deaf people use their senses to read the environment. The DeafSpace Guidelines recommend various tactics for extending sensory reach, like designing view corridors through and between buildings, and giving them ample glazing inside and out, so entrances and functions are legible. Low-glare reflective surfaces can offer clues to nearby activity (for instance, the shadow of a person just outside one’s range of vision), as can controlled vibrations (the footfalls of someone coming around the corner).

Principle three, mobility and proximity, addresses signed conversation on the go. Just as those absorbed in spoken conversation are liable to trip or bump into someone, so are Deaf people—with the major difference that they’re negotiating a built environment in which hearing is assumed. Nor do most stairs and sidewalks allow for observing a companion’s face or using a wide range of motion, both key elements of ASL conversations.

DeafSpace design calls for ramps and wide, gently sloping stairs; "soft" intersections to prevent pedestrian collisions; and interestingly, continuous or repetitive architectural and landscape elements, like datum lines on walls, arcades, and allées of trees, to reinforce paths of travel and aid instinctive navigation. (Maybe there’s deeper science behind the precepts of classical architecture than we ever knew.)

The fourth DeafSpace principle is light and color. Certain colors, especially muted blues and greens, contrast well with a variety of skin tones, making them easy on signers’ eyes. Gallaudet does rigorous color-testing on new and refurbished interiors. Lighting should be soft and diffuse, and avoid dimness, backlighting, glare, and abrupt changes in illumination levels.

Acoustics are the fifth prong of DeafSpace. In general, acoustically quiet spaces are the goal. Hearing aids and cochlear implants amplify sounds, and for their users, the hum of air conditioning or loud echoes can prove extremely distracting. "It really took Deaf people to teach me about acoustics," Bauman says.

To see the principles in action, tour Gallaudet’s campus with Bauman. The first stop will be the Sorenson Language and Communication Center, completed in 2008. This academic building was designed by SmithGroup, with a Deaf architect, George Balsley, serving as a consultant. To the untrained eye, it looks like many newer buildings on campuses around the country, with boxy brick- and metal-sheathed volumes intersecting a taller, glass-fronted core.

But as you draw nearer, the DeafSpace features come into focus. There’s a colonnade at the very front, screening a covered exterior walkway (recommended to shield signers from bright sunlight), and behind that, a row of full-height windows. At the entrance to the building—which is fully glazed—doors automatically slide open, allowing pairs or groups of signers to keep talking rather than stopping to reach for a door handle. Inside the generous lobby, you can see people walking up on the second and third floors. This kind of visual connection between floors is something Bienvenu and other members of early focus groups recalled from Gallaudet’s older dorms and encouraged the design team to imitate.

The heart of the lobby is a custom-made, horseshoe-shaped wooden bench, with room enough for a dozen or more students to sit and talk. It’s the most distinctive feature of the space, but Bauman describes it as only a partial success. With its defined curvature and stiff back, the bench is not all that flexible; a small group of signers is likely to find it awkward. Now Bauman and his team recommend flexible configurations of pieces that don’t impede upper-body movement.

It’s one of several respects in which DeafSpace has evolved since its beginnings. Malzkuhn, who worked in the Sorenson building for several years, offers another example. The design team he was on specified clear glass doors for offices to strengthen visual access. But after the building opened, people were hanging their coats up on the doors, papering over the glass, or otherwise blocking the view from outside. That’s when they realized visual access was not an absolute, he says. "You want visual access in shared spaces, but in private spaces, you don’t."

More of this evolution can be gleaned at a dormitory, the awkwardly named Living and Learning Residence Hall 6 (LLRH 6), designed by LTL Architects with Quinn Evans Architects. Bauman—who oversaw an invited competition for this project—is proud of the ground-floor common room, which is not all that large but manages to accommodate informal student seating and an amphitheater-type section for lectures and other events—a neat solution born out of necessity (the rake of the amphitheater follows the natural slope of the site). Here, students can pull up a chair to relax with friends. A three-quarter-height shelf balances the need for enclosure with visual control, while solving a common problem for signers: the lack of somewhere to put your stuff when you want to free your hands and talk.

Another dormitory, under construction right now, grafts the DeafSpace principles onto a different, and in some ways more challenging, set of considerations. The Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD) is a high school that stands adjacent to Gallaudet’s campus. (It is run by the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center, a division of the university.) To replace old, run-down dormitories, all now demolished, Gallaudet held an invited competition for a single structure that would house all 160 students. The winning team was Dangermond Keane Architecture, a Pacific Northwest firm, with Gaudreau, based in Baltimore.

High-schoolers are not college students, so the architects had to ensure appropriate separation between the girls’ and boys’ living areas. The new dorm has a boys’ wing and a girls’ wing, both L-shaped, rotating off a connecting lobby (which will likely be open to boys, girls, faculty, and official visitors). All the students will be supervised overnight by four faculty members, and that fact drove the building’s massing: each floor of one two-story L has 40 beds, so a resident educator stationed at the corner will be able to keep an eye on both halls. Most faculty members are Deaf, so giving them strong visual control over the dorm was essential.

Beyond the supervisory role, there are plenty of DeafSpace elements intended to make young residents feel safe and at home. The dorm has wide, open stairs, and hallways have eased corners. Transoms over doors maintain privacy while offering visual clues as to whether the room is occupied (like a shadow on the wall). "Everywhere we can, we’re extending that visual reach as much as possible," says Christopher Keane, one of Dangermond Keane’s principals, who is hearing. The lobby design includes what’s known as a solar threshold, mitigating changes in the light level over spatial zones. (Eye strain is a common complaint among signers.) Outside, a building overhang will begin the transition to interior light, so eyes don’t have to adjust to abrupt shifts from bright sunshine to dimness.

At the MSSD dorm, the design team was careful to avoid voluminous spaces that might cause bad acoustics, and it will isolate any vibrations in the mechanical systems to prevent that annoyance. DeafSpace research has actually proposed the use of controlled, positive vibrations as a means of signaling activity in a space, furthering social interaction (a Deaf person might tap the floor to get another’s attention), or to announce a transition between public and private areas.

That is one possible frontier among many for DeafSpace. Bauman mentions the research by his colleague Terra Edwards into the "pro-tactile" movement, an effort by Deaf-Blind advocates to promote touch communication. It’s being explored by Robert Sirvage (who now lives in Canada) as well. A more haptic architecture could be on the horizon.

There's this kind of extraordinary beauty that no one's [seeing], just because, for some reason, we're always turning the other way.

Already, DeafSpace’s work has undermined some initial assumptions about best practices. Take the role of electromagnetic fields. They were long assumed to interfere with cochlear implants. But consultants working with Bauman’s team on lighting controls—after some Gallaudet students and staff noted complications with their implant devices and hearing aids—discovered that it was ultrasonic waves from occupancy sensors that were, in fact, causing the problem. Lighting controls become terrifically complicated when you specify a range of visual notifications (which allows for a variety of intensities, akin to soft versus loud or brief versus repeated knocks for a hearing person), and when you have to balance sufficient light levels against strict energy codes. Not to mention the issue of hearing-aid interference. While this seems like a fine technical point, it will likely result in a new lighting-control standard being applied across the whole campus.

The applicability of DeafSpace thought to every scale of architecture, from site selection and massing down to a single occupancy sensor, makes it exciting for designers. "What I think is so interesting about working at Gallaudet and with the DeafSpace concept is, you’re challenged at every scale to be thinking about these things," says Keane, who also collaborated with Gallaudet on the DeafSpace Guidelines. "The structural scale of the building down to the paint color."

There’s no question that the concept is gaining momentum. After years of teaching DeafSpace concepts to undergraduates and supervising graduate research on related topics, Bauman and his Gallaudet colleague Ben Bahan now co-lead the DeafSpace Institute, meaning that DeafSpace has an official, designated home within Gallaudet’s administration. Faculty are advising on research as far afield as Mexico and Norway. Bauman wants to get serious about post-occupancy studies, develop a fuller pedagogy around DeafSpace, and eventually, open an architecture school at Gallaudet, growing it out of the Institute according to a long-range university plan.

In the meantime, DeafSpace will be taking a wider stage. In partnership with the JBG Companies, Gallaudet is building a large mixed-use development on parking lots it owns just across from campus, next to the high-end Union Market. Although the apartments and offices here will be occupied mainly by hearing people, there will be DeafSpace features, especially in the public spaces, with "green fingers" linking the campus to the new urban district.

Bauman, Keane, and others believe DeafSpace has the potential to change architecture writ large. So many of the measures seem like simple common sense, and create environments that are comfortable for all people, not just the Deaf community. Architect Todd Ray, of Washington’s Studio Twenty-Seven Architecture, is working with Bauman on a DeafSpace metric that could eventually become a LEED point, part of a future revision of the ADA Accessibility Guidelines, or a standard that would be referenced in model building codes and public-space design rules.

Keane describes how working at Gallaudet has influenced the culture in his office. "We use a lot of these [DeafSpace] terms as shorthand for bad design," he says. "[We] see a column in the middle of a big space, and we say, ‘That is not Deaf.’" He believes DeafSpace could prompt a rethink of traditional processes across the construction industry: "How do you set a budget, a schedule for a DeafSpace project?" he asks. Malzkuhn, for his part, thinks there is more work to be done field-testing the principles. "There’s still a lot to be learned about normal functioning," he points out. "It’s not like you can just build a space and people are going to use it the way you thought they would."

Gallaudet’s stated aim is that its DeafSpace process be "radically inclusive," and this is clearly something Bauman thinks about a lot; when discussing the gateway competition, he drew me a graph comparing the trajectory of that competition, with extended and intensive community involvement, to a standard one, in which participation peaks early on, then dwindles to almost nothing. Bauman’s hope is to sustain community feedback through key decision points, so it can be much more than spitballing.

DeafSpace is like universal design—and arguably a facet of it—yet the paradigm is somewhat different. Rather than a general absence of barriers, DeafSpace favors the presence of certain design elements. It is particular and culturally expressive where universal design is general and passive. Could a distinctive Deaf aesthetic one day emerge from that expressive quality? So far, it hasn’t (and some designers, like Keane, are skeptical it will), but it’s an intriguing question.

Last year, Bauman accompanied a small group of Gallaudet students to China. They discussed DeafSpace ideas in the context of Chinese vernacular architecture, visiting the tulou of Fujian Province, large buildings that are round (or sometimes square) and traditionally housed whole clans on several stories. Bauman showed me photos on his computer. Tulou are designed around interior courtyards, so their hallways are open on one side, visually connected across the courtyard, and have no corners. There’s no such thing as a bad apartment, because they’re all equal. For 400-year-old dwellings, the tulou fulfill a lot of 21st-century DeafSpace ideals.

Editor: Sara Polsky
Photography: Rey Lopez


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