Up until this school year, the dorms at Gallaudet University looked like dorms you could find anywhere in the country, with only slight hints that deaf students lived there. When officials set about to construct a new residence hall, they wanted it to be a place that oozed the sentiment, “Deaf students live, work and study here.” They wanted a place that was comfortable and celebrated their culture, where sign language conversations were not impeded by narrow walkways or closed door.
Last month, I toured the new hall with a few Gallaudet officials who led the project and still can barely contain their excitement about the new building as they walk through its hallways and point out their favorite features.
The things that make this building comfortable for the deaf — sloping ramps instead of stairs, automatic sliding doors, wide hallways, small bedrooms and huge communal areas, wall colors that don’t hurt your eyes — make the building comfortable for anyone who visits. Here are some lessons from Gallaudet that could easily be applied to any dorm:
1) Get students and faculty involved before hiring designers and builders. One of the first steps that Gallaudet took was to scrap the usual process — design, bid, build — in favor of bringing everyone together early in the process. During fall 2010, a group of 30 students, faculty and staff met with four teams of designers and builders who were competing for the contract. (The winning team was made up of Sigal Construction, LTL Architects and Quinn Evans Architects.)
2) Follow the conversations. At the heart of the Gallaudet dorm’s design was a desire to start conversations between students and others, and keep those conversations going. The designers took a look at everything that can stop or hinder a sign-language conversation — stairs, walls, narrow hallways, doors to open, kitchens with the stove against a wall, confusing layouts — and then tried to remove as many of those barriers as possible. Any conversation would benefit from those sorts of design changes.
3) Embrace true accessibility. Legally, new buildings are required to meet accessibility and safety standards set by the government — but often that results in ramps that look like an after-thought and railings that look out-of-place. By designing a building specifically for the deaf, the Gallaudet team found that accessibility often took care of itself.
For example: A first-floor lounge area features different floor coverings to visually prompt students as to which areas are for walking (industrial polished slab) and which are for stopping to talk (soft cushy carpet). But those floorings also allow a blind student to feel the differences.
And a deaf student who uses a wheelchair said he loves that he can enter and exit through all of the dorm’s doors, not just the one with a ramp.“I can leave at the side. I can leave at that door or that one,” said Jeremy Smith, 21, a sophomore from Virginia. “It’s accessible. Truly accessible.”
4) Rethink laundry rooms and other spaces. Throughout the design process, Gallaudet officials tell me there were lots of deep conversations centered around questions like: What is a hallway? And how do we make our hallways serve a greater purpose? One traditional dorm feature that the teams re-examined: The laundry room, which is needed but serves little purpose beyond housing washers and dryers. Their solution: The new residence hall has a combination laundry-fitness room so students have more of a reason to linger.
5) Give students raw space where they can screw up. On the first-floor of the new hall is the CoLab Space — also called “the garage” -- a huge open room with cement floors where students can experiment, do messy art projects and, literally, write on the walls. The room contains floor-to-ceiling chalkboards and other surfaces on wheels that can easily move, converting the one large room into as many as six small ones.
Up until now, students haven’t had a space to make mistakes or screw stuff up, said Robert Sirvage, who recently finished a masters degree at Gallaudet and now works for the university. When he was a student, Sirvage took out half of the ceiling tiles in a room to see if that visual divider would influence how people gathered in the room. He was quickly reprimanded by administrators who didn’t want their buildings, and fire barriers, altered.
“It’s important that people have that opportunity, that they can be innovative and not be afraid to make a mistake,” he said, sitting on a stool in the lab one afternoon, taking a break from a film project he was working on with two students. “I tell students: The law of gravity is testable! Test it here.”
6) Blur social-academic-administrative divisions. The location of the new Gallaudet dorm is also strategic. Historically, students were sequestered to one part of campus, academic buildings to another, and administrative buildings to yet another. By building the dorm near the academic buildings, faculty can now look out their office windows and see students studying in dorm lounges. Students can look out their bedroom windows and see the school’s iconic clock tower.
The blurring of traditional lines is happening on a lot of residential campuses, as officials try to better connect the academic college experience to the social one. For example, many of the new dorms that I have visited in the last few years feature apartments for faculty members and classrooms.
But it’s still difficult to lessen the barriers between tuition-paying students and tuition-spending administrators. One idea from Gallaudet: President T. Alan Hurwitz now holds meetings with his administrative team in the new dorm’s conference room.