LightHouse For The Blind Prepares Bigger, Better Mid-Market Headquarters
By David-Elijah Nahmod
19 March 2016
Photo credit: Don Fogg
Since 1902, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired has served as an advocacy, training, education and community center for San Francisco’s visually impaired population. On June 10 the center officially opened its doors to the public in its new three-story Mid-Market home, which was designed in a partnership between San Francisco-based blind architect LightHouse board member Chris Downey, AIA (M.Arch ‘92) and founding partner Mark Cavagnero (M.Arch ‘83) of the world-renowned Mark Cavagnero Associates Architects.
As one of the few practicing blind architects in the world, Downey completed his first commission as the lead architect and designer for the new offices for the San Francisco Independent Living Resource Center. Created by and for the visually impaired, Downey’s design was influenced by his own experiences with input from the blind community. His design has auditory and tactile features built into it to make navigation easier for those with limited sight.
“A lot of the work for the blind and visually impaired is actually about increasing the visual accessibility of the environment,” Downey said. “Only around 6-8% of those who are legally blind have no sight at all. Contrast, lighting levels, glare, fluctuations in light levels—all these things can increase or decrease your visual acuity. Visual contrast can be applied to baseboards, doorframes, or even establishing a difference from one wall to another. In terms of lighting levels, you want evenly distributed light. Things like bright glare from exposed bulbs or sunshine on a glossy floor are really detrimental to people with low vision conditions.”
Downey explained that he envisioned a space that would be “uplifting, dynamic, and full of chances to meet and talk with people” and designed the new LightHouse building with that idea in mind: Focusing on physical engagement and acoustics, he designed an open staircase that allows sound to travel throughout all three floors, making for a multisensory experience that’s dynamic and lively for people with all levels of visions.
“The handrails aren’t your classic round handrails; they’re molded to fit the grip of your hand. The reception desk has places where you can lean your cane against the countertop and it won’t slide off and crash on the floor,” Downey said. “All those little details speak to the level of care involved. At the same time, nothing screams that it’s adapted for people that are blind and visually impaired. It’s not an environment full of Band Aids; it’s all integrated into the architecture. If you didn’t know what you were walking into, you would think, ‘Oh, this is a cool space.’ But if you’re blind, you're thinking, ‘Wow, this is a really cool space. This place really works.’”
The newly improved 40,000-square-foot facility boasts a fitness center, dorms for students enrolled in the center’s training program, an industrial-sized kitchen and a tech store that sells tools and gadgets specifically made for the visually impaired. LightHouse also offers a wide range of classes and programs including sight evaluations, mobility training, group outings, yoga and cooking classes and more.
You can read more about Chris Downey’s approach to architecture and design here.