The Sorensen Center's airy, rounded lobby. (Lydia DePillis)

What do you need from a building if you can’t hear?

In the old model, buildings designed for deaf people were built like insane asylums: In such a way that supervisors could see inmates at all time, to keep track of them. But in the last few years, architects have started thinking differently. Instead of being under observation by one person, deaf people should be able to see each other as much as possible, and orient themselves as if all their senses were intact.

Few places have thought about this more than Gallaudet University, one of the oldest deaf educational institutions in the country. There, architect Hansel Bauman directs the Deafspace project, which is almost finished with a set of guidelines for  designing buildings with the deaf in mind. Last week, he gave a lecture to a group of architects at the Sorensen Language and Communication Center, which itself is one of the first buildings to use those principles.

So, what are they? It’s difficult for hearing people to even imagine what deaf people find important in architecture, but easy to understand once presented (similar to designing for the blind). Here’s a quick primer of things to think about.

  • Sensory reach: Without sound, deaf people primarily use sight and vibration to figure out what’s going on around them, so it’s important to design buildings that allow a person to become aware of other people using those senses. Rounding the corners of hallways, or even making them out of glass, are ways to lengthen the recognition period. Reflections become very important; designing halls and walls with angled windows heighten one’s awareness of approaching figures without sound as well. Open buildings with exposed hallways on multiple levels—like the Sorensen Center’s central lobby—allow for visual communication between floors.
  • Mobility and Proximity: Because most conversations occur through hand movements, it’s important to have very wide hallways and sidewalks, creating space for physical expression. Carving small alcoves out of hallways allows for side communication.
  • Light and Color: When you depend more heavily on sight for interpreting the world, your eyes get tired. Strong colors and either harsh or too-dim light make this worse—a deaf-friendly building will have a mixture of colors and a variety of different lighting sources that contrast with various skin tones (to allow for recognition of signing) without straining your vision.
  • Acoustics and electromagnetic vibration: Just because you can’t hear doesn’t mean sound isn’t important. Deaf people are especially sensitive to air vibrations, which makes things like heating and air conditioning systems particularly bothersome.

Here’s the full presentation, with diagrams illustrating the above concepts:
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