How a San Francisco Architect Reframes Design for the Blind

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By Lamar Anderson
August 6, 2014, CURBED

Architect Chris Downey is standing next to a pile of Sheetrock, balancing a white cane in the air like a tightrope walker’s pole. The week before, construction had begun on a new office for the Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco, or ILRC, a nonprofit community center for people with disabilities. Downey holds the cane up to approximate for the center’s executive director, Jessie Lorenz, how the reception desk will jut out at an angle from a concrete column. Lorenz takes a step, and a pile of pipes on the floor clatters. “I don’t know what’s over there,” says Downey. Lorenz giggles. “I hope I didn’t break anything,” she says. Lorenz regains her footing and touches the cane. “That makes sense,” she says. “It’s almost like we’re funneling people into this part.”

Even though Lorenz, who, like Downey, is blind, can’t see the space before her, she knows exactly what to expect. On her desk at the ILRC’s current office on Mission Street, she keeps a tactile floor plan that Downey printed for her. The plan’s fine web of raised lines looks like an elaborate decorative pattern, suggesting a leaf of handmade stationery or a large sheet from which doilies are about to be cut. Though Downey has consulted on other architects’ projects since going blind six years ago, this one marks a turning point for him. The community center is the first space he’s designed since losing his sight. The center recently opened its doors to the public with a celebration to inaugurate the new space, located on Howard Street in the city’s Yerba Buena district, just down the block from the Moscone convention center. But on this May afternoon, the walls are just beginning to go up.

Lorenz and her guide dog, a German shepherd named Phoenix, head deeper into the building to check out the storage room, and Downey makes his way to the storefront, where the conference room looks out onto Howard. Other than a few scant rays of afternoon sunlight slanting in through the window, it’s dark. The floor is scattered with the guts of the future office—cables, pipes, and more Sheetrock—obstacles Downey weaves around with his cane. There’s sort of a ropes-course, trust-fall quality to touring a dimly lit construction site with someone who can’t see. He tells me where we are, and I tell him where not to step. Read more…

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