Architecture Tailored for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Community: Gallaudet University’s DeafSpace Principles

Gallaudet University was established in 1864, becoming the first American educational institution for the deaf and hard of hearing. The university is officially bilingual, with American Sign Language (ASL) and written English used throughout the educational programs. Over the years, the university has grown, adapting both its teaching methods and its spaces to the needs of its students, in turn learning from them how to counter the challenges they face and create a safer and more comfortable environment. These lessons turned into design guidelines, created to educate the architectural community about the strategies they can employ to create more accessible spaces for all.

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The university's campus was designed in 1866 by Frederick Law Olmsted, famous for his design of York City's Central Park. The campus spanning 99 acres in Washington D.C. is now recognized as a part of a National Historic District, and it includes 2.5 million square feet of academic, residential, and support buildings. Through careful planning and adaptation, this space reflects the principles of accessibility and inclusivity.

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Gallaudet University’s Campus. Image © dkb via Wikipedia under lincese CC BY-SA 4.0

In 2005, architect Hansel Bauman of HBHM Architects began a collaboration with the ASL and Deaf Studies Programs to create the DeafSpace Project (DSP). This partnership resulted in the development of the DeafSpace Guidelines, a design guide with recommendations for over 150 architectural elements and their contribution to creating a better-built environment for the deaf and signing community. These guidelines address five key areas that are important to be taken into consideration by architects and designers working with these communities.


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Space and Proximity

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Sycamore at Northgate Park Hospital by Medical Architecture. Image © Martin Forster

Through cultural norms, every community outlines its standards for proximity, defining the comfortable distances between individuals engaged in conversation. The Deaf Community has its particular set of distance requirements informed by their communication needs. In order to initiate a conversation, eye contact is required, while ample space is needed around the arms in order to sign comfortably, a concept known as “signing space.” When gathering in larger groups, deaf people tend to form circles that allow all individuals to communicate with each other. These communication methods often require more generously dimensioned spaces to accommodate all types of interactions.

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© Kalah_R via Shutterstock
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Descartes University Lecture Theaters by AZC . Image © Sergio Grazia

In contrast with hearing individuals for whom physical enclosures offer a sense of security, deaf individuals tend to feel more secure in open spaces that offer visual control. For this, interior spaces need transparent walls, large openings, and sliding panels between communal areas, with varied heights for clear sightlines. Major pathways can include "eddies" for more private conversations, while fixed and flexible seating arrangements promote interaction. Spaces should also be fitted with pedestals and shelves that offer places to set belongings while using sign language, thus facilitating unobstructed visual communication. For deaf individuals, seating arrangements must ensure proper sightlines for legible communication, with round or horseshoe-shaped tables preferred. Classrooms are also recommended to use a horseshoe seating arrangement for visual access.

Sensory Reach

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Classroom Makeover For The Blind by Creative Crews. Image © Ekkachan Eiamananwattana

Sensory Reach refers to the interconnected systems of perception (hearing, seeing, smelling, feeling) that individuals use to understand and orient themselves in space. For deaf individuals, extending Sensory Reach involves utilizing visual, vibratory, tactile, and social cues to achieve comprehensive spatial awareness. In designing spaces for the Deaf, various strategies can enhance these multi-sensory communication systems.

Visual systems are typically used to replace auditory alarms or notification systems. In one example, doorbells activate a light fixture inside the private space to contact the room occupant. Clock alarms include shaking devices that introduce vibrations, while alarm systems use a combination of visual strobes and shaking devices to ensure that all occupants are alerted. Vibration zones can also be included in the design, understood as limited areas where certain floor surfaces are used to propagate vibrations. In public spaces, these provide a subtle clue of approaching people as a means to mitigate abrupt interruptions.

Mobility and Proximity

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Sesc 24 de Maio by MMBB Arquitetos + Paulo Mendes da Rocha. Image © Nelson Kon

One of the main goals of the DeafSpace systems is to create safe conditions and freedom of movement for the signing community, minimizing hazards and enabling easy circulation flows. Wider sidewalks, pathways, and corridors are essential to accommodate groups of people signing while walking. Sudden angled or abrupt transitions are to be avoided. Additionally, ramps are preferable to stairs as they support a smoother flow of movement and reduce the risk of tripping hazards. Stairs, when necessary, should be configured to aid communication and ease of use, ensuring that movement remains fluid and uninterrupted.

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Sycamore at Northgate Park Hospital by Medical Architecture. Image © Martin Forster

Thresholds and intersections, such as building entrances, exits, and crosswalks, need to be designed to maintain seamless circulation and continuous signed conversation. The use of vertical cues, like building arcades and rhythmic architectural elements, helps individuals orient themselves and anticipate changes in their path through peripheral vision. These elements enhance navigation and conversation flow, reinforcing the importance of designing buildings and landscapes with sensitivity to how Deaf individuals perceive and move within their environment.

Light and Color

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B Campus by AIM Architecture. Image © Dirk Weiblen

Deaf and hard-of-hearing people rely heavily on visual communication methods, such as sign language, lip-reading, and facial expressions. Poor lighting conditions, glare, and shadow patterns can interrupt these communication types, contributing to eye fatigue and a loss of concentration. Throughout the university campus, specific architectural elements such as sun louvers are used to control daylight to diffuse direct sunlight. This extends to the exterior paths, which are often shaded to provide a glare-free environment. A similar example is the Silk Tree Deaf Friendly Urban Park in Iran by Ashrafi & Zad, where shaded circular spaces are provided to allow for comfortable conversations for people of all hearing levels.

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Silk Tree Deaf Friendly Urban Park by Ashrafi & Zad . Image © Nima Ghanei

In addition to natural light, artificial light is employed to provide comfortable illumination levels. Presentation spaces are designed with flexible lighting systems for a variety of presentation types, with dimming lights separated from the light cones necessary for the presenters and interpreters. For night-time, public spaces are fitted with pools of light which create spaces for gathering within larger spaces. In most spaces, it is recommended to position light sources so that they wash surfaces with light to avoid hotspots and shadows, as opposed to positioning light sources centrally in the space.

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ReBar by Organic Design Inc. . Image © Yukinori Okamura

Color can also be used strategically, with soft hues of blue and green being employed as backgrounds. This creates contrast with every skin tone, highlighting sign language and creating a calming atmosphere. When used in a controlled manner, high-contrast colors improve visibility and navigation. The texture of surfaces also plays an important role in reducing surface glare. Highly reflective or specular surfaces such as stainless steel or polished stone should be avoided, opting instead for matte or rough textures. To improve visibility in certain spaces, mirrors can also be employed strategically to allow people more visual control of their surroundings.

Acoustics

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Artek HQ Helsinki / SevilPeach. Image © Tuomas Uusheimo Photography

The matter of acoustics might seem like a less critical aspect of spaces designed for the deaf and hard of hearing, but people have a range of hearing abilities, with many of them using hearing aids, cochlear implants, or other assistive listening devices. These devices amplify all sounds, thus increasing the background noise to often uncomfortable, even painful levels. Proper acoustics minimize unnecessary noise and reverberations, making it easier for these devices to function properly. Considering the acoustic properties of spaces also allows vibrational cues such as alarms or footsteps to be perceived more easily, while also minimizing distractions and providing better conditions for sign language interpreters.

Improving the acoustic properties of spaces involves various strategies that address sound absorption, insulation, and diffusion. Installing acoustic panels on walls and ceilings absorbs sound, reducing echo and reverberation. Soft furnishings like carpets, rugs, and curtains also contribute to sound absorption. Sound insulation techniques, such as using double-glazed windows, insulated walls, and solid-core doors, help prevent noise transmission, while the incorporation of varied surfaces and sound diffusers scatters sound waves, minimizing echoes.

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Fazer Visitor Center & Meeting Center K2S Architects. Image © Mika Huisman

By better understanding, the needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing people, architects and designers can create spaces that respond to a wider range of abilities: wider pathways, smooth transitions, multi-sensory cues, acoustic comfort, visual connections, and color and textures strategically employed to facilitate orientation, all of these strategies can improve the experience without hindering architectural expression. As proven by the curb-cut effect, improving accessibility and inclusivity for one category can drastically increase the quality of spaces for all in a positive ripple effect that results in more functional, enjoyable, and universally accessible environments.

This feature is part of an ArchDaily series titled AD Narratives, where we share the story behind a selected project, diving into its particularities. Every month, we explore new constructions from around the world, highlighting their story and how they came to be. We also talk to the architects, builders, and community, seeking to underline their personal experiences. As always, at ArchDaily, we highly appreciate the input of our readers. If you think we should feature a certain project, please submit your suggestions.

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Cite: Maria-Cristina Florian. "Architecture Tailored for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Community: Gallaudet University’s DeafSpace Principles" 06 Jun 2024. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/1017389/architecture-tailored-for-the-deaf-and-hard-of-hearing-community-gallaudet-universitys-deafspace-principles> ISSN 0719-8884

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