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‘DeafSpace’ design principles take shape in the D.C. area

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A talk in NoMa earlier this week highlighted pioneering projects that promote visual communication

A rendering of Gallaudet University and JBG Smith’s Sixth Street NE project
Gallaudet University/JBG Smith/Hall McKnight

D.C. developers are incorporating design principles for the deaf and hard of hearing into their projects more and more, a recent panel in NoMa showed. As planners learn to promote visual communication in building blueprints, streetscape layouts, and lighting choices, advocates are hoping that “DeafSpace,” as the architectural concepts championed by Gallaudet University are known, will become the new standard for urban development both in the District and elsewhere.

“DeafSpace teaches us all how to insert the idea of empathy into design, which we as architects are never trained to do,” said Hansel Bauman, the federally chartered school’s head of campus design and construction, at the February 12 event on design for the deaf and hard of hearing. “We’re more interested in designing a beautiful building, not necessarily one that cares for the people in it.” The NoMa Business Improvement District helped organize the panel discussion as part of its recurringNerds in NoMa” speaker series. An American Sign Language interpreter was present.

DeafSpace concepts range from square rooms that Bauman said “bring people in closer contact visually” to diffused lighting that facilitates conversations in ASL. Sidewalks also play a role: The wider they are, the easier it is for signers to communicate as they walk. Ten feet is considered a suitable width, according to Gallaudet’s design standards.

“The space required between two deaf people signing with each other is different than the space required with two hearing people speaking,” explained Ayisha Swann, a development associate with Chevy Chase, Maryland-based real estate firm JBG Smith. “That lends itself to wider, more pedestrian-friendly sidewalks.”

The District already features some DeafSpace principles in existing and planned projects. For example, NoMa’s Swampoodle Park, which opened last fall and was designed by architectural firm Lee and Associates, has curved benches that aid visual communication.

A cross-section of the planned streetscape for the Sixth Street NE project
Gallaudet University/JBG Smith/Hall McKnight

DeafSpace is also the guiding concept behind an over 1-million-square-foot joint development proposed by Gallaudet and JBG Smith. Located along Sixth Street NE, near the Union Market building, the multi-use project will have residential, commercial, and retail space, including more than 1,700 housing units. Hall McKnight, a Northern Irish architectural firm based in Belfast, is working on the first phase. Ten-foot-wide sidewalks with buffer elements that delineate space for pedestrians—such as benches and trees—are part of the project’s public-space components.

Construction on the development has not started yet due to a pending zoning lawsuit brought by a group of neighborhood activists who say they are concerned the project will spur displacement risks and other negative impacts. But its backers say it will benefit the area, and are primed for a positive result. “If the [court] ruling is favorable, we’re ready to go,” said Sam Swiller, a real estate advisor to Gallaudet and a founder of Holbrook Capital, after the panel.

JBG Smith is applying DeafSpace lessons to other projects as well. In Northern Virginia, future home to Amazon’s second headquarters, the developer has engaged Alexandria-based lighting designer CM Kling + Associates to concentrate on streetscape projects and incorporate visual communication needs into them, said Swann.

February 12 “Nerds in NoMa” panelists
NoMa Business Improvement District

Lighting is a key factor in designing spaces for the deaf and hard of hearing. Jon Cetrano, a founder of deaf-owned Streetcar 82 Brewing Co. in Hyattsville, Maryland, and an alumnus of Gallaudet, said his team felt as if they had “hit the jackpot” with the building they found for the brewery, since it has garage doors that have large windows. The windows, Cetrano said at the panel, let a lot of natural light into the space and help create an ambience conducive to signing.

Ultimately, advocates say, DeafSpace principles benefit everyone. “DeafSpace to me means a place where the deaf community is able to contribute ideas to urban design,” said Robb Dooling, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who represents part of NoMa and is deaf. “Something we do for deaf people will benefit all people, like curb cuts are universal now.”

This post has been updated to reflect Swiller’s current affiliation with Gallaudet.