How a Blind Architect Designs
Chris Downey, a blind architect in San Francisco, views architecture and design as a multi-sensory experience. He explains his refreshing perspective on TED Talk.
Chris's Tips for Young Builders
- 1. Touch everything you can: the different chairs in your house, the family car, the kitchen sink versus the bathroom sink, the fence in the neighbor's yard. Run your hands along the lines of each object, from top to bottom, left to right. Only in this way can you understand how design works.
- 2. Use pipe cleaners, wax sticks, or a tactile pad to draw the lines you traced with your hand. Does the chair have a straight back? Is it rounded? Are its legs straight or curved? How is the design of the kitchen chairs different from the dining room ones? Is the sink bowl round or square; how are the faucet heads different in the kitchen versus the bath? These are called "design elements."
- 3. As you use your cane to navigate, pay attention to the different textures under the tip. How does the carpet in the living room feel (soft, elegant) compared to the kitchen or bathroom tiles (hard, washable)? Go outside to a deck, a patio, a driveway, or a sidewalk. What does it feel like through the tip of your cane? What material do you think it is?
- 4. Pay attention to the sound your cane makes when you walk down a long hall versus when you navigate down a sidewalk. Notice how some restaurants are noisy while others are quieter. Designers can impact how sound carries in a room. Notice how the relaxing sound of a fish tank or fountain calms you.
- 5. How do smells affect your feelings about a room? Compare the kitchen to the bathroom — yikes! Yummy food smells make us feel more comfortable in a room, while bad smells make us want to leave (and shut the door!). And guess why people like to hang out in the kitchen? Good smells make us feel good.
- 6. People think design is visual, but design is about lines and curves, about the relationship of space and function (the stove is near the sink). Good design is about textures, smells, sounds, and easy navigation. Good design creates the "atmosphere" you want.
- 7. When designing, ask yourself what kind of feeling you want to create: formal or casual, quiet or bustling, intimate or grand? Design is about using your imagination — and everyone has an imagination!
More About Chris Downey
"I believe great architecture for the blind and visually impaired is just like any other great architecture, only better. It's a richer experience, involving all the senses." —Chris Downey
Christopher Downey, AIA, is an architect, planner, and consultant who lost all sight in 2008. Today, he is dedicated to creating more helpful and enriching environments for the blind and visually impaired.
As one of the few practicing blind architects in the world, Chris has been featured in local, national, and international media stories and speaks regularly about architecture using a multi-sensory approach. He also teaches accessibility and universal design at UC Berkeley and serves on the Board of Directors for the Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco.
He starts each day rowing with the East Bay Rowing Club on the Oakland Estuary before commuting on public transit to his office in San Francisco.
Make a LEGO Plan of Your Room
What You'll Need
- 1. Place sheets of paper end to end. Count how many sheets of paper it takes to run the length of each wall of your room. If your room is a simple rectangle, you are lucky. If there are bumps and jogs, this might take a while!
- 2. Establish a "scale" for your LEGO plan — let's assume that one sheet of paper equals one LEGO brick (preferably a 2x3 LEGO).
- 3. Place the corresponding number of bricks to the number of sheets for each wall. Do this for each wall of the room — one brick high (one layer) — until all the walls have been "drawn" or "modeled."
- 4. Once each wall is bricked, you have the basic floor plan of your room, drawn to scale, just as an architect would. But let's keep going!
- 5. Now figure out where the door to your room is, and locate where it should be in the LEGO plan. Using the same size sheets of paper, measure how far out the door is from the corner. Count the number of bricks out from the corner in the LEGO plan, and remove the same number of bricks to make a door opening.
- 6. Now let's locate any windows in your room. This might be a bit tricky because windows don't usually go all the way to the floor. Can you think of a way to do this? One way might be to place your cane along the side of a window, to mark the spot, and then count the number of sheets from the corner to that spot.
- 7. After you have located the windows, instead of removing the bricks completely, replace them with thinner (single line LEGO bricks). Do this for all of the windows.
- 8. Bravo, you have created a basic floor plan of your room, the first step in architectural design! A "floor plan" is a drawing that shows the basic arrangement of walls, doors, windows, and other key elements of a room or entire house or building.