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The Big Reveal: Gallaudet's New Building Is Ready In Time For The New School Year

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You know some things about architecture. Doric columns and Roman arches, perhaps. Piazzas and loggias, maybe. Forget these things. Forget about FAR ratios and Travertine marble. Think only of space. Think of vertical space and how it affects what you hear. Think of horizontal space and how it affects what you see. Think of these things and you have begun to step into the world of DeafSpace. Gallaudet University is leading the way in this relatively new architecture movement and they have just completed their latest building that put many of their theories to the test.

When we last visited Gallaudet this building—the Living and Learning Residence Hall 6—was halfway completed and our tour guide, Hansel Bauman, left our head spinning with all the ways a building can be designed to make life easier for deaf people. As Gallaudet's Director of Campus Design and Planning, Bauman thinks about these things day in and day out along with the whole crew of people who worked on bringing this building to existence. A few weeks ago LLRH6 opened to the public and we stopped by to see the many ideas Bauman had first described to us now fully formed and in use by the community. It all begins with the need for more space, in more ways, with more emphasis on the space between people rather than what they take up individually.

"We know we need more open space," says Robert Sirvage, a DeafSpace specialist and adjunct professor at Gallaudet, who is deaf and spoke to Curbed with help of a sign language interpreter, "But we had to figure out what that meant to us. At first it was too open." His first example is of the common area on the entry level of the building and its tiered seating areas that all have a full view of a lecture area on the floor. "Sign language doesn't just happen in front of your face," explains Robert. "It takes place from the torso up. People need to be able to see more of a person's body than just their head. We measured this out exactly so that people at the back [row] would be able to see a person signing all the way at the front."

? The theme that dictated every design decision was that of building connections, both between individuals and between the different parts of the campus as a whole. Planners aimed to create spaces as conducive as possible to people communicating and building relationships with each other, down to even the smallest, almost unnoticeable, details. The chairs at the tables, for example, don't have any armrests and the ones on the lounge chairs are very low. Since people using sign language need to be able to turn to the person next to them to see what they are signing armrests would only hinder their ability to communicate.

? The change in flooring between the walkway and the table areas is another way designers hope to improve the experience of people using this building. "People who are both deaf and blind are very uncomfortable entering spaces where there is moveable furniture," says Sirvage. "So we hope the different flooring materials send a message that the furniture should stay on the carpet."

? Sirvage goes on to explain how windows are important from a campus planning perspective. "The corner of this building is glass on both sides. So that from the outside you can see through to the buildings on the other side. That helps unify the campus," says Sirvage. Given the abundance of natural light developers also used software modeling to predict how the sun moving across the sky would impact the lighting of the interior and the shadows that would result. Having good natural light is not only easier on the eyes for a population that must rely on visual cues much more heavily than those without hearing loss, but it also greatly impacts the quality of life for the members of the student population who have low vision.

? The concept of having full length glass on adjoining walls also applies to interior rooms located where the hallways intersect. As Sirvage explains: "If I'm walking and having a conversation with someone I have to stop my conversation when I get to the corner so I can look around the wall and see if someone is coming [because I can't hear his or her footsteps]. It is a small detail but all these details add up to make a big difference." This is a shift from prior DeafSpace designs which advocated for corners to be rounded off so people could see if someone was coming. The problem with that choice is people would naturally stand closer to the wall rather than allow extra space to see around it. Additionally, the entry doors to this building and many others on campus are automatic sliding doors so people don't have to interrupt their sign language conversation because they need to use their hands to turn a door handle (not pictured here, but our prior article has an example of this).

? Moving up from the first floor we enter the residential areas of the building. It is here where the designers had to focus on finding a balance between protecting students' privacy while also creating a space where people could be aware of others on the floor. The stairways provide as much visual access as possible with safety barriers that are see-through and a direct line of sight from one floor to another. The glass window on the right of the picture is into the student kitchen and lets people see who is in there (such as people they might be friends with or, say, an ex that they want to avoid).

? Each floor comes equipped with lounge seating area with corner views of the campus adjacent to the kitchen. Students were involved in the design process from the very beginning and one of the things they requested was more places to congregate—both socially and in study groups. With that in mind these open areas were built to be very flexible and can be used as group study areas during some times of day and social gathering spaces during others. The whole building has WiFi so students can get online from anywhere. Notice once again that the chairs in the kitchen are without armrests to facilitate conversations in sign language.

? The dorm rooms look like any other dorm rooms with a few subtle differences. Each bedroom is situated so someone in the room can see the front door from almost every angle. This cuts down on having to worry that someone could sneak up from behind. Similarly, below is the entry door to the dorm room and if you look closely at the two grey panels on the left there are light switches between them. That is a common Gallaudet feature that lets people announce their arrival instead of ringing a doorbell or knocking on the door.

Technical Aside: This picture uses our Before/After function so you can compare two pictures side by side. Use your mouse to grab the vertical bar in the middle of the two pictures and then slide it back and forth to see what the place looked like both mid-construction and once it was finished.

? While the dorm rooms are similar to most every other dorm room in the country, the laundry room has gone high-tech and it has nothing to do with DeafSpace principles. Students can check online to see which machines are available and the machines all take credit or debit cards so hoarding quarters is a thing of the past. Increasing accessibility for all of their students is a priority for Gallaudet and on the other side of the room, not pictured, is a washer and dryer pair at floor level so people in wheelchairs can access them more easily.

? Now that we've explored the living components of DeafSpace, we can focus on the aspects that influence learning in a university setting. For that we return to the first floor to see several classrooms, the most innovative of which is the collaboration lab, or "Co-Lab". The large warehouse-like space is built with walls that move to create either one large room or several smaller ones. Each of the moveable walls have either white boards or chalk boards and the perimeter walls consist of six glass garage doors that can be lifted to create an even larger open area. "During Homecoming students can build a float and wheel it right outside to the art department," says Michael Fields, Director of Construction Services.

? Here's a look at the Co-Lab from the outside and its garage doors that allow for the room to become even more open to the public.

? All of these classrooms (which can also be used for meetings by staff or student groups) are built to reduce as many barriers to communication as possible. This one has a circular table so everyone is able to see the sign language of anyone else at the table.

? Communication with the world outside Gallaudet is just as important as communication within it so students have access to a video relay service that links in real time to a sign language interpreter who can then convey the message(s) to a hearing person ("They can even order a pizza," says Sirvage). There are two such devices in this building joining the many others on Gallaudet's campus.

? We've covered the importance of design decisions that relate to what people can see, but the acoustics were taken into consideration too. For people with assistive hearing devices rooms that have echoes or sound reverberation can be painful to their ears and make it hard for them to distinguish the sounds they need to hear from all the background noise. The design team learned from another building on campus with high ceilings that they lead to too much reverberation. Consequently, this newer building has rooms without as much height. The ceilings also have black noise absorption panels to cut down on the echoes, with more decorative wooden slats obscuring them that also help absorb sound. Additionally, the floors have a built in loop system, which is the same technology people with certain hearing aids use to hear on the telephone. Below is the direct shot of the ceiling's absorptive panels behind the wooden slats.

So there you have a preliminary introduction to DeafSpace principles in action. Robert Sirvage, one of our tour guides, gave us a brief summary of the building using sign language in the video below. We've provided captions with the help of interpretation from Jamie Yost, a Gallaudet Interpreting Service Staff Interpreter. (Please excuse a few moments of blurriness when our camera was trying to autofocus in the bright light.)

And if you want to see even more of the new building we have a few pictures of one of the faculty residences—including a look at one of the few details the design team had to change after installation in order to accommodate deaf people.

· Gallaudet [OfficialSite]
· Hansel Bauman [OfficialSite]
· Gallaudet University Ups Standards For DeafSpace Architecture [CDC]
· Video relay service [Wikipedia]
· Hearing Loop [OfficialSite]

Photos by R. Lopez and A. Dobson


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