When R. Jack Powell, the garrulous executive director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, dreamed of a new home for the 11,000-member association, he envisioned a place so free of architectural barriers that paraplegics like himself could come and go as easily as able-bodied persons.
No tight corners in halls to snag wheelchairs. Light switches and electrical sockets within easy reach. Simple chrome levers instead of knobs on doors. A floor plan that gives PVA workers privacy, as well as easy access to one another.
Powell's wish came true: The new $10 million PVA headquarters off Farragut Square incorporates all of those features--and more. Meticulously planned and equipped with television monitors for interoffice conferences, the building enhances 18th Street's office row. At the same time, Powell and others say, it's a showcase of the barrier-free architecture that more public and commercial buildings should have.
"We wanted to make a statement with this building, to show that it's possible that disabled and able-bodied people can work in the same environment--and that the same principle can work in society," said Powell, 35, a former Army captain whose spine was injured in a mine explosion in the Vietnam war.
PVA, whose members include veterans with spinal-cord injuries or diseases, occupied one floor of a Bethesda building for 10 years before moving to the District in November to be closer to the legislative and corporate leaders it lobbies.
With 11 disabled employes in an office staff of 42, Powell wanted the new offices to foster a close-knit atmosphere while giving workers more privacy than they had in their old headquarters.
"We didn't want to be like rats in a maze: running past each other and darting into our rat holes," Powell said. "There's a lot of teamwork here, a lot of unity, and we didn't want to lose that.
Powell asked David Pesanelli Associates, a respected Washington design firm, to lay out the PVA offices in the new building's top four floors. (The lower six are occupied by a newspaper bureau, an executive recruiter and other firms.)
Pesanelli, in turn, asked a behaviorial psychologist to interview PVA employes and chart their daily work habits.
"Those results showed that the employes held a fair number of conferences during the day but also did a lot work by themselves," Pesanelli said during a recent tour of the office building. "Our task was to devise a plan to give them both privacy and easy access to each other."
Pesanelli and Richard Thomas, his associate, made subtle allowances for PVA's disabled employes and visitors: wider-than-normal doorways and halls, specially fitted restrooms and kitchenettes, door levers and conveniently placed switches and plugs. They also gave every PVA floor a conference room, installing television monitors and consoles in each to allow employes to hold meetings without leaving their floors.
To make the best use of the building's compact floor space, Pesanelli and Thomas set small work stations--airy cubicles with tinted glass walls--at 45-degree angles to the walls. And instead of bisecting each floor into two rows of offices, the main corridors hug one wall, providing each work station with a window view.
Powell said PVA spent $120,000 on the design and construction of the interior and $250,000 on the "teleconferencing" system and a telephone network that allows Washington workers to talk simultaneously with PVA offices around the country.
The PVA building design, which Pesanelli plans to enter in architectural competitions later this year, already has drawn praise from building experts.
"What I have seen at the PVA comes as close to a model for barrier-free design as anything I can think of," said Larry Allison, a spokesman for the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, the federal agency that monitors construction of government buildings.
The PVA building was not required to meet the board's regulations because no public funds were used to build the PVA building, Allison said. But it remains "one of the best examples of . . . how an architect can eliminate barriers when he puts his pen to paper," he added.
Although widening hallways or adding elevators and wheelchair ramps to an old building can be costly, making a new building accessible to the disabled adds virtually nothing to the final cost, Allison and Powell said.
"Usually the cost of providing basic accessibility is no more than one-half of 1 percent of the total cost," Allison said.
Powell said: "We wanted no stereotypes in this building, nothing that shouted 'handicapped' to anyone who came through the door. The building says what PVA says: that being disabled isn't a handicap."