Architect loses sight but helps with vision for special project

Chris Downey shows the embossed architectural plans he uses after converting them using special equipment.

March 19, 2018

This piece is presented by TSP.

Chris Downey’s life changed abruptly when he lost his eyesight, but that didn’t stop him from continuing in his chosen profession of architecture.

Now, the San Francisco architect is collaborating with members of TSP Inc. on a project specifically designed to enhance the educational experience for students who are blind or have visual impairments. He is sharing his first-hand knowledge of multisensory design with the firm’s architects, engineers and interior designers.

The time spent with Downey as he helps with the design of the new South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Aberdeen will provide insights that benefit its students, teachers and families. Along the way, TSP’s staff members are gaining valuable knowledge they can use to serve future clients.

Michelle Klobassa

“Architecture tends to be centered on the visual experience, so it has been intriguing to think about how we can design spaces that cater to the other senses,” said Michelle Klobassa, a principal and senior architect.  She is the project leader for the SDSBVI building.

“It is challenging to me to change my thinking and approach to design. Are there simple things that we as architects can do to help those with visual impairments navigate buildings? I have learned that acoustics are extremely important both for comfort and wayfinding.”

Time spent with Downey is proving valuable to senior architect Rex Hambrock and other TSP architects.

Rex Hambrock

“It is a great reminder that we can’t take for granted the senses we have and our perspective alone as people interact differently with the spaces we create,” Hambrock said after a discussion on how people can interpret wayfinding signs based on their own experiences.

In 2008, Downey underwent surgery to remove a benign brain tumor pressing against his optic nerve. The surgery was successful, but three days later he awoke to discover his vision was gone. Nevertheless, Downey was back at work within a month. His recent projects  include a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs rehabilitation center for the blind in California and renovations on housing for the blind in New York City. He also helped design the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired’s 40,000-square-foot headquarters in San Francisco.

Losing his sight has led Downey to ponder how architects can go beyond city, state and federal mandates to make a space accessible to a broad range of people, including those whose disabilities aren’t readily apparent to others. In a past project at a state facility in California, for example, Downey secured approval  to increase the lighting beyond the state’s strict energy-saving guidelines. That was important because only 6 percent to 8 percent of people who are legally blind have no sight at all, Downey said. Contrast, lighting levels, glare and fluctuations in lighting all can increase or decrease a person’s visual acuity. Sunshine on a high-gloss floor can make walking uncomfortable for a person with even a minor vision impairment.

“Every square inch of a space needs to be visually accessible,” Downey said.

He realizes that the buildings he designs will be used by people with different and sometimes multiple disabilities.

“What works for one disability doesn’t necessarily work for another,” he said. Tactile signs placed at shoulder level are inaccessible to people with limited vision who also use wheelchairs.

Buildings often are designed to muffle noise. Walking on carpet removes much of the helpful feedback provided by a harder surface.

“That can be deadly if you’re blind,” Downey said. “Having hard surfaces on the floor can be really important.”

It also is common to print signage in black and white, Downey said. However, selecting hues with a proper contrast can be more effective, particularly for people who are color-blind. Outside, he has learned that 18-inch waterproof strips inserted in sidewalks can serve as tactical maps for pedestrians. Using the right materials is important because some vibrations from crossing metal bars can be painful for someone with a spinal cord injury.

Downey, who has designed stairway handrails that indicate when a person is approaching the last steps, reads architectural designs with his fingertips after they go through embossing equipment. He partners with specialized acoustical engineers in the San Francisco area when he is asked to advise how individuals who are blind or have low vision might experience a proposed design.

Downey’s experience is helping frame new conversations among TSP’s project team members.

“Part of the enjoyment I find in my job is that I am continually learning new things,” Klobassa said. “I look forward to collaborating with Chris and improving my designs because of it.”

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Architect loses sight but helps with vision for special project

This architect lost his sight but is helping with the vision for the new South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

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