The Study of Deaf Spaces Becomes DeafSpace

The words “living laboratory” may conjure up images of Petri dishes and beakers filled with mysterious chemicals, but at Gallaudet University, a living laboratory is the intersection of human behavior and design.

This concept was put into action during the fall 2014 semester when the Office of Campus Design and Planning Executive Director Hansel Bauman, DeafSpace Design Researcher Robert Sirvage ’09, and graduate student Keith Doane ’14, created a research incubator in an empty warehouse in nearby Ivy City to understand how deaf students and faculty really interact in a science lab. The warehouse space was donated by Douglas Development, one of the largest developers in D.C.

“We observed two class sessions – one was a biology class, and the other was a chemistry class. The information we gathered and are currently analyzing is directly influencing the redesign of science labs in the Hall Memorial Building (HMB),” said Bauman, whose office is in charge of designing and overseeing the renovation project.

The team created the lab space in the warehouse using design plans proposed by the architectural firm Studio Twenty Seven Architecture. The researchers set up GoPro cameras and used the video footage to study the behavior of students and faculty. What they learned surprised them and changed the way they had envisioned the design of the new science facilities. For example, the team learned that they needed to rearrange the fume ventilation hoods to enhance visual communication between students and instructors. They also realized that the location and shape of the lab benches needed altering to enhance interaction between students and visual sightlines during lectures that take place in the lab space.

“We originally thought that during lab work the instructor would stand at one end of a table, facing the students,” said Sirvage. The data, however, showed that instructors tended to walk behind the students as they worked so that they could see what they were working on as well as see their conversation and contribute when necessary.

Sirvage explained that conducting the lab research before the construction began resulted in cost-savings for the university.

“We were lucky to do this because we realized that there needed to be serious overhauls in the design. Money invested for the warehouse mock-up saved Gallaudet a good deal of money in the long run,” said Sirvage.

This research activity is one example of how Gallaudet is creating living laboratories to better understand the ways architecture can be enhanced through greater awareness of the unique ways deaf people experience and design their spaces.

“We initiated the living laboratory concept at Gallaudet in 2010 as a means to expand knowledge about DeafSpace design concepts and utilize them in the design of all new campus improvement projects,” said Bauman.

Created at Gallaudet, DeafSpace is a set of architectural design concepts that make buildings attuned to deaf sensibilities by including ideas like abundant sources of natural lighting, clear visual sightlines, eye-pleasing wall colors, and wider hallways among many others.

Other living laboratory projects have involved fellow alumni, students, and faculty in the design process for the LLRH6 residence hall, completed in 2012, and the new Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD) dormitory, soon to be constructed on campus.

Construction on the science labs is now underway and will continue in phases through the end of 2015. The project provides significant improvements and expansion of Gallaudet’s outdated science lab facilities to meet the future enrollment, instructional, and research needs of the Department of Science, Technology, and Mathematics. Final move-in to these spaces will take place in time for full occupancy by the beginning of the 2016 spring semester.

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