Illuminating design for the visually impaired

Photo courtesy Mark Cavagnero Associates

by Mark Cavagnero, FAIA, and Katy Hawkins, LEED AP
San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired is a 115-year-old social services organization serving people who are blind or have low vision.

In designing the organization’s new headquarters, the architects at Mark Cavagnero Associates had the opportunity to reimagine their usual design process and rethink how to create beautiful spaces focusing on all senses. The team worked closely with LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin, who challenged the team to think beyond sight and create a warm, uplifting space.

The mission of the LightHouse is to:

  • provide training for people at all stages of vision loss;
  • create a strong community within the organization; and
  • forge connections with other organizations and companies.

Clients who come to the LightHouse at what is often a very stressful time in their lives learn loss of vision is not loss of quality of life, but rather the beginning of a new way of experiencing and participating in the world around them.

Designing this unique building required the designers to think about architecture in new, creative ways. From planning to execution, project team members with decades of experience had to learn new skills and reimagine old ones. Fresh approaches were required to meet very specific challenges. The project required particularly close, detailed attention to acoustics, lighting, and textures.

More than in any previous project, Mark Cavagnero Associates had to visualize, test, and prototype how the smallest details within spaces would be used and lived in by its eventual occupants. In place of standard, two-dimensional conceptual drawings, tactile prints were used. The architects had to find the proper drawing scale and format the tactile prints to be easily read with the fingertips. At the outset, just as the LightHouse provides training to their clients on blindness skills, it also trained the design team on effective nonvisual communication techniques, including formatting of tactile drawings for maximum clarity. The team was also fortunate to draw on the expertise of architect Chris Downey, president of the LightHouse board, who is blind.

The 4180-m2 (45,000-sf) facility takes up the top three floors of an office building on Market Street. Staff offices are on the ninth floor, with the main reception area and other public spaces on the 10th. The 11th floor houses short-term residential facilities.

One key goal of the project was to create a comforting first impression as occupants walk off the elevator and into the 10th-floor reception area. Wooden slats were used for the walls. As well as being aesthetically pleasing, the spaces between the slats allow sound to pass through, to the absorptive surface behind, thereby creating soothing acoustics.

This space had to be both acoustically and visually warm. Several strategies were employed, and different senses harnessed to create this effect. Wayfinding was one of the most important design challenges addressed by the architects.

The wood-wrapped reception area at San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired creates a sense of visual and acoustic warmth. The new grand staircase connecting all three levels is in the background.
Photos © Jasper Sanidad

Intuitive wayfinding
Working closely with the client, the architects came up with a spatial and material solution to make wayfinding intuitive for blind and low-vision users, many of whom may be new to blindness. The spaces on each floor are arranged around a circulation ring, with a public gathering/lounge space in the center linking the existing elevator lobby and the new interconnecting stair. The flooring of the ring was discussed at length, as different materials have very different effects on the sound of cane taps.

One misconception about cane-users is the idea they employ the cane to feel directly in front of them. While this is partly true, the primary purpose of the white cane is to produce the sharp tapping sound, which enables users to visualize their surroundings through echolocation. After trying out several different materials, including carpeting (which provided no cane feedback) and bamboo flooring (which carried too much of a ‘plastic’ sound), it was determined polished concrete gave the most pleasing and useful sound for aural cane feedback.

At one end of the floor, colorful light-emitting diode (LED) panels on the walls serve as part of the wayfinding strategy. Approximately 90 percent of visually impaired people have some vision, and vivid color is something people with low vision can often discern. The client also wanted the panels to be interactive, so there are sliders for users to mix their own colors and change the mood of the space, as well as various presets, such as orange for Giants games or red and green for Christmas.

Signage is another important component of the wayfinding strategy. Oversized, three-dimensional room numbers were used, separated from the body of the sign and contrasting with the background to make them easier to read for those with low vision. The body of the sign has a smaller, code-conforming raised room number, the same color as the sign so it does not appear as a visual duplicate.

Glass office doors will often have signage mounted directly on the glass, which sometimes means it is difficult for low-vision users to read. To address this, the architects mounted a 305-mm (12-in.) wide wood band at the strike side of each door, providing a solid surface for room signage. On the other side of the wood band, inside the room, users can expect to find light switches and room controls, as well as hooks for hanging canes.

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