|Doer’s Profile: Chris Downey
Architect turns vision loss into design advantage
Photo of Chris Downey © Curt Campbell, VA Palo Alto.
Summary: Chris Downey is a San Francisco Bay area architect who had been working for Michelle Kaufmann Designs one and a half months when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. One month later, he went in for surgery with the understanding that there was a slight chance he would lose his sight as a result of the operation. Two days after the surgery, Downey lost his sight permanently. Since that time, he has undergone rehabilitation and training that not only help him cope with his new circumstances, but also allow him to thrive as an architect. Now, Downey is using his experience as what he calls a “rookie blind person” to assist SmithGroup and associate architect The Design Partnership in the design of the Polytrauma and Blind Rehabilitation Center in Palo Alto, Calif., for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Why did you become an architect?
I got really interested in architecture in junior high school. My family had moved from Tennessee to North Carolina and in the process of experiencing new environments and new homes and buildings, I got interested in architecture. It’s the creativity: the art, drawing, and problem solving that I enjoy doing and am good at.
Describe how losing your sight changed the way you practice.
It’s completely different, [but] the issues are largely the same. Being that I can’t see drawings anymore and I can’t see buildings, I’ve had to find new ways to do that and new ways of walking through a building and trying to understand a space. That’s a skill that I’ll be developing over time. It’s not easy, but the good thing is as you learn, you start hearing things that you would never notice before. [For instance,] I can walk down a hallway and sense where other halls join into the hallway just by air pressure and acoustics.
As sighted architects, we design largely with visual skills with visual media. What you see defines a beautiful building. When you’re designing a building, so much of it is based on the visual experience and when that’s not in the equation, then what makes a nice building, a nice space, a nice place to be whether you’re just sitting there enjoying the day or reading a book or moving around and engaging with people? What I’m trying to do in my work is address the pragmatic need of getting around in buildings and environments, but then secondly addressing the quality of the architectural experience if you aren’t going to see it. That, I think, involves a broader engagement with other senses that result in a much richer environment for everybody.
How has your experience helped guide the design of the Polytrauma and Blind Rehabilitation Center?
The Western Blind Rehabilitation Center [ed. note: this is the existing facility’s name] for the VA has department directors that are blind who have been involved with the design process, but until I got involved it was difficult for them to understand what was going on. They didn’t have drawings they could look at, so they would be involved in the architectural discussion, but it was a completely rhetorical discussion about very specific things.
One thing that happened as a result of my rehab training is that my computer technology trainer set me up with an embossing printer that prints drawings basically as if it was a Braille text, so the line becomes periods and dots that I can feel. It was developed primarily so that I could work with the designs. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel it and then I could start understanding buildings that way as they were being designed. As I got involved with this particular project, I then had the opportunity of sharing those drawings with the blind or visually impaired staff for the Western Blind Rehabilitation Center. That opened up the entire architectural process to them, which was pretty exciting because it makes it really brings them into the process in a way that otherwise they were shut out of—not by anybody’s intention but just not by having the means to engage in the conversation.
A lot of what I do is more like a creative director where I respond to the work that’s being done as observations and say, “This kind of space would be really confusing to someone that’s blind.” If you go through a great hall or a big lobby and you’ve got doors at either end of the lobby, how can you get from one door to the next? How you navigate through that space? What sort of landmarks or clues can be used within the environment to help you get from one side to the other where you need to be, or what things could be hazardous or just confusing to someone who’s blind?
How has your client responded to having a blind architect?
Before I got involved with the project, it had been underway for a while. I joined them in mid-design development. Prior to joining the team, the client had been really concerned that here they had two very capable professional companies doing a polytrauma blind center, but how do they have the experience and knowledge of designing environments for people who are blind? [The architects conducted experiments where] they blindfolded themselves for periods of time to experience it, but they know that’s just a trial and that doesn’t get you through a day. That doesn’t give you understanding of how you understand space if you’re blind. It just is an experiment to do for an hour.
I know from my experience that it takes a long time to get to where you really understand your space and how to move around and things that are important to you if you don’t have sight. So, when I showed up on the scene, I was kind of a curiosity to the team but [they realized] this is the perfect opportunity and something to bring to the client to their benefit and the VA.
If you’re blind you don’t go into architecture. Typically, if you lose your sight, it’s late in life and you’re close to retirement. It’s hard to continue practicing architecture if you can’t see. Until recently there wasn’t much technology to help you do that. Now there’s more and more. I’m in a unique situation at this point, so the client was really pleased that they had somebody on the team that was working with them everyday that was blind and that can bring a lot of experience to them. Quite frankly, [I think they found it helpful that] I’m a rookie blind person—still new to me—and the people that they’re serving are rookies. They recently lost their sight, so it’s a fresh experience for me and it’s something that I can bring to the project…and that gives them a much greater level of comfort.
I think it’s also a nice story for their patients that are dealing with vision loss. A lot of people think, you lose your sight, the party’s over. Now what do you do? I think the fact that I’m continuing to work as an architect and am uniquely engaged in the process and excited about it is meaningful to the client and also to the users.
Have you found the built environment to be friendly or unfriendly to the blind and visually impaired?
Blindness and visual impairments are a unique situation for accessibility. You can get around physically just fine. What we don’t have access to is information to get around. [For example, the ADA] requirements for Braille at bathrooms, exits, and floors [don’t] tell you how to get around a building. If you [are sighted, you] come off of an elevator and there could be a sign that tells you which way to go for different departments or rooms or, if it’s a larger complex, from one building to another building. If you’re blind, there could be a Braille sign to tell you where to go, but how do you know the sign is there? How do you even find it? That [lack] of access to information for wayfinding has really surprised me. There’s not a system in place today that gives that equal access to that kind of information and I think it’s critical. Without it, you’re dependent on someone taking you there or having to ask for directions, which quite frankly may or may not be correct. There are a number of people, companies that are working on that. There’s nothing that’s in place just yet. That so far in my experience has been the greatest area of concern or deficiency in how we’re dealing with accessibility for the visually impaired.
Most of the visually impaired that are out walking around today have cell phones with GPS systems and that’ll get you through an urban environment pretty well, but you go onto a [university or corporate] campus where you don’t have predictable streets but winding sidewalks and steps and [spread out] buildings and services, the GPS won’t get you through those places.
I think the rest of the code is doing a pretty good job of basic safety concerns of protruding objects off walls and warnings of pedestrian ways and vehicular ways and solid risers in stairs so your cane doesn’t get caught in the riser.
What do you think you’ll do upon completion of the project?
There are a number of options. There’s interest from both firms [I’m working with] to be involved with other projects and pursue other opportunities with them. The other thing I’ve really become interested in is the whole question of designing environments for people that are blind and visually impaired. That [may include] other blind rehabilitation centers, schools for the blind, and transit facilities: any place where you have lots of people moving through unfamiliar spaces on a regular basis. Issues of accessibility through those spaces are critical.
Blind or visually impaired, we go everywhere. We may not be there in large numbers, but we can get around anywhere. There are some places that are pretty straightforward and others that are really confusing and hard to navigate. I think that as architects design spaces, you don’t often think about the clarity of movement and the clarity of use. I know as an architect, previously I never thought about what it would be like to engage this building without sight. Even with ADA, a lot of the focus has been on people with physical mobility issues, but there’s not a whole lot in ADA about visual impairment. I think it’s important for architects to consider the clarity of a space and how understandable it is and to try to assume something other that a full set of sensory skills, whether it’s doing without sight or other senses or mobility. In professional circles, we tend to get surrounded by so many people that are completely able-bodied that we forget the reality of a lot of people that have other issues. I think it’s important to consider that as a beginning of the design process so that you develop an architectural form and language that works for more people.