One Architect’s Mission to Bring DeafSpace Design to the Masses

Richard Dougherty grew up in a house with a rectangular dining table, pocket windows and small rooms. Built over 200 years ago, this Irish Georgian house once served as a parsonage. It was dark, damp and cold, which “made it particularly difficult for me, as someone who depends on clear eye contact, lip reading and other facial expressions to communicate,” he says. . Closed rooms didn’t help either”[because they] limited my visual range and bearings.

Dougherty is deaf; his parents and four siblings are not.

Dougherty is the lead architect for what is expected to be the first public space in the United States built using DeafSpace’s design and architecture. The design philosophy, developed in 2006 as the DeafSpace Design Project, includes more than 150 architectural elements that take into account “the distinct way that deaf people relate to their physical surroundings,” says Dougherty, including the space and proximity, sensory range, mobility and proximity, light, color and acoustics.

The new space, which includes an outdoor space called Creativity Way, is on the campus of Gallaudet University, the nation’s only four-year liberal arts institution for the deaf and hard of hearing. Chartered by President Lincoln in 1864, Gallaudet, where the DeafSpace design was developed, is also adding three new buildings that will utilize DeafSpace principles and open the campus to the surrounding DC neighborhood.


While Dougherty grew up in a hearing home, his wife, Sarah, grew up in a home that “encapsulates everything about the ‘deaf world’ – a rich sensory world full of quiet conversation, visual animation and a specific cultural identity,” says Dougherty. Sarah, her siblings and their parents are all deaf. “The house was an oasis of spatial fun for me,” says Dougherty, recalling the first time he visited there. “[There was] an abundance of natural light, tactile and warm surfaces, unobstructed access to the gardens. The smells were also different.

His in-laws, he says, spent years redesigning their 1930s home to “fit it into the family’s unique ‘ways of being,'” which included removing walls and adding strategically placed lights and mirrors. Reflective surfaces can aid visual communication and allow a deaf person to see that someone is behind them. The differences between Dougherty’s childhood home and that of his wife helped him “appreciate the values ​​and power of fundamental connections between deaf people and the spaces they inhabit”.

This paved the way for Dougherty to become GU’s lead pedestrian-focused public space architect, as well as GU’s advisor for the three new buildings. These will include 30,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor and 15,000 square feet of university space above, including 245 residential units, which are described by those involved as “the porch of GU for the community”. This new project, Dougherty says, is the school’s way of reaching out to the neighborhood to foster a new relationship between the two.


DeafSpace’s design, called “human-centered design”, can benefit everyone, says Dougherty, who works for Hall McKnight, an architecture firm with offices in Belfast and London. It “inserts[s] the idea of ​​empathy” in the design, advocating circular or curved seats as a key element, for example.

Deaf people are a “spherical people,” writes Ben Bahan, professor of American Sign Language (ASL) and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet. While a hearing person may seek angular designs that incorporate walls and enclosed spaces, this approach can create a sense of isolation for deaf people. Architect Todd Byrd writes that visual access and fewer walls, or half walls with “implied enclosures”, is a design approach that benefits deaf communication. Dougherty calls the circular seats a “democratic equalizer”; not only does it facilitate visual communication, but it gives everyone equal status because no one sits at the head of the table. It also allows people to see each other better, which can highlight facial cues, which are also essential for better communication whether people speak ASL or not.

In fact, most, if not all, of DeafSpace’s principles are beneficial to the hearing community, says Dougherty. And they’re “supposed to be just as effective as the traditional design,” according to Sam Swiller, director of strategic real estate planning, business development and external relations at GU. “Applied correctly, [DeafSpace design] should not affect space availability.

This image from the Creativity Way project illustrates a liminal interface between two very different cultures and sensibilities – on campus and in the city. Using the principles of Deafspace, these collections of pieces are designed to support engagement, occupation and collaboration between Deaf and hearing communities. [Image: Hall McKnight]

“[DeafSpace design] is not at all constraining,” says Robbie Saclarides, vice president of development at JBG Smith, the developer of the project, adding that the design concepts are not intrusive or necessarily even obvious to the user. The lobbies of the three new buildings, for example, will have open sightlines, a concept Saclarides says the majority of the population likes, and circular seating or furniture that can be moved around in different configurations.

While the hallways of the new buildings will be wider, Saclarides says the living units themselves won’t include any noticeable difference. (For example, there will be no half walls in the rooms.) But there will be improved lighting. “I don’t think you would necessarily say, ‘Oh, the lighting in this room is spectacular,'” she says. “But you would have a subconscious idea of [lighting designed] to avoid certain types of shadows”, which is important for ASL communication. Color palettes, especially blue and green tones, will not only create a soothing background; they’ve also proven to be the best backdrop for communication between people of all skin tones, says Dougherty.

Creativity Way will also sport wider sidewalks to make room for signed conversations, which Dougherty says can benefit anyone who walks and talks, including people in wheelchairs and parents with strollers. And trees with a clear understory will improve everyone’s line of sight.

“We worked very closely with our landscape architects to be intentional about the types and colors of materials we implement on the sidewalks and crosswalks and wherever we control the design of the public realm,” says Saclarides. “If you don’t hear a car coming, you’ll definitely see that contrast in the pavement materials, and you’ll feel it under you – bumps or different textures in the pavement as you approach potential conflict areas. ” It can serve as a warning to pedestrians to look up and check their surroundings, much like a rumble strip on a freeway or the bumpy texture at the edge of a train platform.


Creativity Way will encourage people to stop and chat, with sunken preservation pits and amphitheater-style seating. It will also function as a transitional space between the school and the District: Creativity Way will be open to the public from dawn to dusk, and the commercial space on the ground floor will serve the public.

When it comes to cost, Saclarides compares the DeafSpace design to the green design. “Are there ways to do eco-friendly design that is really expensive? Yes. Are there ways to be more sustainable without increasing costs? Yes absolutely. So I think it’s [also] true for the design of DeafSpace,” says Saclarides, adding that much depends on the construction site and specifications.

Although JBG Smith and GU have not yet committed to specific tenants for the retail space, they plan to set aside at least 5,000 square feet for a Deaf-owned business. As for other tenants, Saclarides says JBG Smith is looking for business owners who are “intent to really look at their location and environment.” Saclarides says all retail tenants will receive training on how to communicate effectively with those who speak ASL.

Saclarides sees the project, which will launch this fall, as one that will not only put Gallaudet’s ideas for DeafSpace design “through and through” but also allow others to take the principles and keep improving them.

Dougherty says the project has the potential to become a global design model for celebrating sensory diversity. “I strongly believe in an architecture that focuses on building connections. . . . One that is deep, inclusive and equally meets the demands of body and mind; an ethical architecture that integrates rather than alienates.

About Gertrude H. Kerr

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