Gallaudet University Designs for the Deaf Community, but Everyone Benefits

At Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., DeafSpace, a concept developed by campus architect Hansel Bauman, is now guiding the development of buildings and landscapes in order to better address the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing people, which also results in better spaces for everyone. Gallaudet University — the oldest university for the deaf community in the country and the only university in the world where all programs and services are designed with deaf and hard of hearing people in mind — is creating a new 2020 campus master plan that expands DeafSpace beyond the buildings and into the historic campus designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and the surrounding neighborhood.

DeafSpace is focused on five key elements that impact how deaf and hard of hearing users navigate buildings and landscapes: sensory reach, space and proximity, mobility and proximity, light and color, and acoustics.

The focus is on these elements because they are too often overlooked in the design of the built environment. And as Alexa Vaughn, Associate ASLA, a deaf landscape architect at OLIN, demonstrated through a project she called DeafScape, DeafSpace principles can be readily applied to many types of landscapes.

DeafScape / Alexa Vaughn, Courtney Ferris, copyright GroundUp Journal

Bauman has been the campus architect at Gallaudet University for 15 years. In a conversation on Gallaudet’s campus, he said the masterplan is guided by Gallaudet’s heritage, its desire for sustainability, and its need for accessibility.

Understanding and interpreting the history of the campus is central to the development of the new master plan. Gallaudet was founded as a school for deaf and blind children in 1857 and was granted the ability to confer college degrees in 1864. Fredrick Law Olmsted designed the 99-acre campus in 1866 to include campus buildings, a small farm, and a large forested area. At the time of the university’s founding, it was outside the planned area of Washington, D.C. The area immediately surrounding the campus has subsequently urbanized over the last century and a half.

Olmsted-Axon
Original campus plan designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted / Gallaudet University

The original campus and its buildings, which are now on the National Register of Historic Places, were mixed-use; academic and private life was integrated. A working farm mixed with academic instruction, professors and students lived in the same buildings, and academic and living spaces lined the same hallways. Daily life happened throughout the campus core, resulting in what Bauman calls “vibrancy.” For the deaf, communication is primarily visual, and the centralized core of the campus offered a visually-accessible space interwoven into daily life. “Olmsted created a scuffy, working, living landscape.”

Olmsted was successful in establishing corridors for visual communication, while planting trees that created shade. He didn’t plant any understory that would block sight lines. But it is unclear if he deeply understood the issues facing the deaf and hard of hearing community. Bauman points instead to the original buildings on campus as models: higher ceilings and large windows bring in more natural light, glass transepts over doorways let deaf and hard of hearing people see if rooms are occupied or not, and the mixed use of buildings help create a sense of life.

During subsequent campus expansions in the 1970’s, unfriendly large Brutalist buildings were introduced along the north side of campus. This expansion was necessary in part because of the Rubella outbreak of 1964 and 1965, which resulted in nearly 20,000 babies born with Congenital Rubella Syndrome (CRS), which can result in deafness. Many of these buildings were designated as dorms, separating academic and private life. The vibrancy found in the heart of the campus was stretched out, preventing a central visual zone for daily life.

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Campus expansion in the 1970’s / Gallaudet University

Restoring the vibrancy of campus is the primary focus of the 2022 campus plan. Maintaining visual connectivity throughout the center of campus will be balanced with planting more shade-giving trees. Many of the sidewalks will be widened to allow groups to sign to each other comfortably while walking through campus. For Bauman, “aesthetics are something to experience, not to look at.”

Using urban designer Jan Gehl’s methodology, Bauman and his students have been mapping the vibrancy of the current campus by observing and recording when, how long, and where people are moving through the campus or stopping to communicate, then turning this data into graphics. Using the historical documents of the campus, the designers are also creating similar maps for past configurations of the campus. These maps allow Bauman to see where students are avoiding spaces because the built environment isn’t conducive to visual communication and where design interventions would be the most beneficial.

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Vibrancy maps of Gallaudet Campus / Gallaudet University

The team at Gallaudet University are already using data from these analyses and applying DeafSpace guidelines to improve navigation throughout the campus. The new Kendall School Division II Memorial landscape design conforms with the principles, said Elizabeth Brading, director of program development at Gallaudet. There have also been piece meal efforts to plant more trees to create more shade and reduce glare in between buildings, update lighting, and expand sidewalks, explained Christopher Hoffman, a campus architect and manager of design services.

The guidelines are also shaping major new development on campus. In 2015, an international competition was held for a new 6th street corridor, an ambitious mixed-use development that will include a new media laboratory for the school and commercial and residential development. Hall McKnight Architects won the competition in 2016.

The university is partnering with the JGB Companies and the DC department of transportation to develop the corridor, which will include the first new public landscapes designed with DeafSpace principles. The goal is to better integrate the edge of the historic campus into the neighboring, gentrifying Union Market area and create a whole district accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing community.

In order for the design teams competing to understand the challenges the built environment present to deaf and hard of hearing individuals, architects and designers were asked to close their eyes and rely on touch and smell, so they could better understand the importance of these senses for those who use them to mentally map spaces.

Bauman said the development’s new streets will include 12 to 15-feet wide sidewalks that are consistently lit, ensuring people using sign language and lip reading can see one another. Circular seating will allow groups of varying size to sign to one another while maintaining a visual connection.

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Updated view of campus promenade near 6th Steet / Hall McKnight Architects

Lightweight, flexible seating will incorporated, allowing deaf and hard of hearing people to arrange seating so they can face one another. High tables offer people places to set down coffee, bags, or other items and use both hands to sign.

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