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DeafSpace leads change at DesignDC

The DeafSpace concept began to evolve just a few short years ago, but it has had a major impact on architectural design and thinking, both on campus and beyond Kendall Green. DeafSpace design principles continued to inspire on July 14 — this time at a conference that drew architects, designers, engineers, consultants, contractors, and planners from around the nation.

On that day, design innovators from Gallaudet and two architecture and design firms presented at the DesignDC 2009 conference, held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown Washington, D.C. The presentation was supported by the University’s Program Development Office.

The theme of the event was “Architects Leading Change.” In “Making Connections: The DeafSpace Project,” the presenters described how change came in the form of students putting pencil to paper as designers to articulate the fundamentals of space as it relates to their unique sensibilities.

A departure from traditionally accepted design

“We’re really talking about a paradigm shift here today from traditionally accepted architectural design concepts, said Hansel Bauman, director of campus planning and design at Gallaudet and an architect with HBHM Architects, who introduced the concept he and a group of Gallaudet students helped develop.

The Deaf Space Project first emerged as a course that would guide the design of the James Lee Sorenson Language and Communication Center (SLCC). It has since propelled the renovation plans for a residence hall, steered a proposed “innovation lab” beside the Gallaudet campus, and inspired collaborations with other students of function-focused design concepts. Bauman said that Gallaudet has embarked on a “radically inclusive process” that brings the University community into the planning process at every step.

Robert Sirvage, a recent graduate of the Department of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies’ master’s program, presented next. Sirvage, who now works in the University’s Program Development Office, was a member of the original DeafSpace class, and devoted his graduate research to a study of the way ASL users gauge space when walking.

“We wanted to get away from learned behavior and see how our physical sensibility shapes our cultural experience as we make connections with space and navigate through it,” Sirvage explained. “That it is where DeafSpace principles come into the picture as a guide for design with the intention of producing forms that will encompass and enrich it.”

This means that form follows function in the method of design based on DeafSpace. This is a departure from the traditional paradigm which has perpetually minimized or ignored the needs of deaf and hard of hearing people. Instead, DeafSpace allows them to become innovators rather than “victims” of unfriendly design.

The next presenter was Greg Mela of SmithGroup, the design firm that created the SLCC. Mela described how his firm used five basic aesthetic principles to complement DeafSpace principles. His team carefully considered space, light, form, composition, and materiality, and then created a place that would “celebrate the natural condition of deafness and incorporate the community.”

They also hoped to connect the residential and academic areas of campus. The result, Mela said, was an interior that allowed full visual access to each part of the building and the outdoors and ease of navigation. SmithGroup accomplished this with glass walls, open spaces, and curves. The length and placement of the building also helps to link together other parts of campus.

New effort to renovate Clerc Hall emerges

Lessons that emerged from the SLCC have influenced another project now underway at Gallaudet — the renovation of Clerc Hall. Alick Dearie of Ayers/Saint/Gross Architects + Planners said that radical inclusiveness produced radical changes to the 1970s-era building. Ayers/Saint/Gross is in the process of completing the transformation, which will include a more open and inviting community living room, an open kitchen, fewer floor slabs, and an outdoor amphitheater.

Bauman took the podium again to describe future projects where DeafSpace can play a role. An ongoing project is Gallaudet’s involvement with the revitalization of 27 acres of land adjacent to the Gallaudet campus. This is where Bauman envisions the innovation lab and hopes DeafSpace principles will influence the overall design. Additional activities include making connections through two summits with students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Will there be future collaborations?

Collaborations figure prominently in upcoming plans, Bauman said. He is looking toward taking design classes in a more interdisciplinary direction by working with the departments of deaf studies, business, social work, and others. Eventually, he would like to help create an urban studies program at the University. Students can also look forward to projects that connect campus community members with residents of the adjoining Trinidad and Ivy City neighborhoods.

The project that piqued the most interest from the audience was the Campus Design Guide. Based on extensive research into space use, the guide will allow designers to create spaces that will inform the greater community about ways of making connections rather than making accommodations. The document, like the presentation, is intended to benefit anyone with an interest in innovative design.

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