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Gallaudet University Ups Standards For DeafSpace Architecture

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"Acoustics are one of the most important parts of DeafSpace design," says Hansel Bauman as he stamps his feet on the hard floor of one of Gallaudet's buildings. The high-pitched echo from his boots reverberates back and Bauman raises his eyebrows. "That isn't good," he says. Bauman, director of Gallaudet's campus design and planning, goes on to explain that all those sounds—echos, squeaks, and chair scrapes—get picked up by hearing aids and generate extra noise into the ears of their owners. Ambient noise is just the beginning of the things that keep Bauman's mind in overdrive. Every aspect of Gallaudet's buildings gets his attention down the most minute details that people without hearing loss would probably never think of.

Currently Bauman and his team are concentrating on a new dorm expected to be finished in time for students to move into this coming fall. "Many of our students come from hearing families, so this is the first time they've been in a community of people who communicate the same way they do. We want to support that as much as possible," he says. Curbed took a tour last week and found a lengthy list of ways simple changes to a building can drastically improve the lives of people who have limited or no hearing. Click through for a pictorial tour of the examples.

?The photo below shows the lobby Bauman used as an example of bad acoustics. "We're trying to learn what we did wrong so we can figure out how to do it better in the new building," he explains. One change they are going to make is to have absorptive panels on the upper parts of walls to absorb excess sound, as well as use flooring materials that don't create as much unnecessary noise.

Embedded in the very title DeafSpace is another top priority for this architecture movement. People without hearing loss can carry on a conversation while they walk and be parallel to each other without losing track of what the other person is saying. Signers need to be able to see the other person and watch where they are going. That creates the need for more of a forty-five degree angle between the participants and automatically increases their need for more physical space. Gallaudet realized the hallways need to be much wider than usual and the ones in this new dorm are about two feet wider than a normal hallway specifically so people can carry on signing conversations more easily. ?

? Another hallway feature are these alcoves in front of each dorm room. They create more space for people to move out of the way of hallway traffic as well as create a wider threshold of entry into the room. "Since deaf people don't always sense the distant approach of visitors to their room there is often a sense of sudden interruption," says Bauman. "We worked with a design studio at MIT on projects around vibration and resonance as a communication modality. Also in buildings we have created ways for using structural borne vibration as a means to announce the approach of a visitor to a room." Currently, Gallaudet uses a light switch system outside each door. Instead of knocking or ringing a doorbell people announce their arrival by turning on and off a dedicated light.

? The picture below shows the in-progress stairwell for the new dorm and it is a way to open up the lines of sight so students can have advance warning of someone arriving. "We try to find the balance between visual access and visual exposure," says Bauman. "We want people to feel safe and not have the sense that someone can sneak up on them, but we also want people to have privacy."

? Here is a shot of the first floor which includes a large empty space called the Co-Lab for student performances, art shows, or meetings. The wide angle of the shot also shows the emphasis on bringing as much natural light into the building as possible, but aesthetics are only part of the reason for the large windows. Communication is another. Since sign language is a visual language it is important to see subtle changes in facial expressions; the lighting in a room can change the tone of a conversation. Even the most innocent of smiles can look sinister when backlit by a setting sun, explains Bauman. His team has figured this out and taken things one step further by adding filters to the windows that polarize the light and reduce glare. Natural light also helps reduce eyestrain.

? Here, we have a look at the two-person dorm room space. The design team presented several different floorplan choices and the student population voted on the one they liked best. The five-story building will have rooms for 175 students, plus several faculty apartments. Most of the living spaces are built for a typical roommate set-up, but there are several rooms on the ground floor built as singles for people with physical disabilities. Each floor has a common kitchen and living room.

? In the foreground of this picture below you can see the materials that are planned for the exterior. The goal was for this to be a 'background' building so it wouldn't compete visually with the original buildings on the campus (many of which were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead in the 1800s).

? Now we're back to the first building we started in to show examples of 'datums' or visual clues that the space is changing. The columns on the left, for example, are an extra hint that the building edge is ending and opening up into wider space. Other datums can be a change in the baseboards and wall color or material to delineate one room from another. The new building will include some similar features, but they won't be installed until it is closer to completion. Another detail that many would overlook, but supports the goal of helping students build as many connections as possible, is the sliding glass doors that lead into the building. They allow people to enter without having to stop signing and pull open a door handle.

? Curved walls are a trend that has increased in DeafSpace architecture as a way to prevent two people walking into each other if they both come around a corner at the same time. Since they might not be able to hear footsteps, the curve allows them an earlier glimpse of each other, but Bauman is not convinced it is a good solution. "All it does is encourage people to walk closer in to the wall so they end up not being able to see around the corner. The walls should still come to a point, but the top half should be glass so people can see if someone is coming," explains Bauman as he demonstrates in the photo below.

All these pictures are just the beginning of DeafSpace principles, and just the beginning of how this building is at the forefront of a new design trend on so many levels (we didn't even get into its geothermal heating system, for example). Bauman and his team have a research paper coming out next year that outlines one hundred and fifty ways the design of a building can impact the experiences of people who are deaf, but he doesn't admit to having too many firm answers. "I look at it as one hundred and fifty research questions," he says.

· New Geothermal System Being Considered For Residence Hall [Gallaudet]
· Gallaudet [Official Site]

Photos by R. Lopez


UPDATE: An earlier version of this post used the phrase 'hearing impaired' but Gallaudet contacted us and asked that we change the wording to 'deaf' or 'hard of hearing'. They also asked that we expand on several points mentioned in the article for clarification purposes. The post has been updated to reflect these changes.

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