Virginia Tech architecture students see accessibility through new lens
A group of Virginia Tech architecture students recently planned and led an immersive design workshop for high school and college students with blindness or low vision.
Kelly Casey has very little vision in her right eye. Since she was in first grade, her eyesight has been deteriorating. Last spring, her right eye’s retina detached, and her vision became more unclear and warped.
Her eye condition is one reason why Casey, a fifth-year Virginia Tech student studying architecture, wants to design spaces that are accessible for people like herself.
Recently, she put her personal interest into action.
Casey is one of seven Virginia Tech architecture students who planned and led an immersive design workshop for 10 blind or partially sighted high school and college students.
Earlier this month, these students spent four days at Virginia Tech, learning building design concepts, exploring the use of different materials while using mostly touch and hearing, finding out more about the architecture discipline.
“Exploring accessibility is what I am passionate about,” said Casey, who wants to design healthcare, wellness, and educational buildings and to be an architect “who can design for everyone.”
The students’ activities included everything from drawing floor plans for houses and 3D-modeling exercises to designing corridors and entrances. They heard from architects and explored Virginia Tech’s new Creativity and Innovation District building, which houses a residence hall and creative spaces.
The workshop’s guest speaker was Chris Downey, one of few practicing blind architects in the world, whose work focuses on enriching the environment for those with blindness or low vision.
Andrew Gipe-Lazarou, a visiting instructor for the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, organized the workshop as part of an independent study for Virginia Tech students in the School of Architecture + Design. The workshop, which is the focus of the independent study course, is modeled after a similar one that he organized as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland in collaboration with the National Federation for the Blind.
He has maintained contact with the blind and partially sighted community since then, including founding a nonprofit that offers multi-sensory travel experiences in the Mediterranean for blind people.
“I carry this interest with me,” Gipe-Lazarou said of the workshop experience. “Pushing for inclusivity in design and education is important to me and continues to positively impact my life.”
The workshop offers a perspective that he believes is necessary for everyone who studies architecture.
“The challenge is to better understand how working with the blind and visually impaired can better inform our understanding of architecture and space, our understanding of its social value, and the positive implications it has when we organize communities and design the built environment,” he said.
Representatives of the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired recruited and organized the student group that attended the workshop and funded the materials used.
It is especially important for these students to learn about the architecture and design field, an area in which they may not previously have considered working, said Kathy Malone, a senior manager for the department’s Bristol office.
One of the students, Ian Scroggs, 15, of Fairfax, Virginia, said he’s already thinking about his future. During the workshop, as he put the pieces together for a model house using a putty-like material and short wooden sticks, he said he’s interested in becoming an engineer.
He’s already considering universities to which he may apply, and that includes Virginia Tech, Scroggs said.
“The expectation [for the students] is exposure and experience,” said Caren Phipps, director of services for children and youth for the department.
To prepare for the workshop, Virginia Tech students wore goggles for a day that simulated different vision loss. This helped them to better understand the view of the participants.
During the workshop, each Hokie was paired with a few students to serve as a mentor over the four-day period.
Isaiah Ho, a Virginia Tech architecture student, said he’s already contemplating how he will use the lessons he has learned in his career. Ho, who will graduate in May, recently accepted a job at an architecture firm in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I have started to think about the materiality of the things I am using, the way that they feel and the way they reflect sound,” he said. “I thought this would be a really good opportunity for me to broaden my horizons and get to understand the rest of the sensory aspects of architecture.”
Virginia Tech students expect that this first workshop will set the stage for future ones at the university that focus on ways that architects can create accessible designs.
It’s a learning experience for Hokies and workshop participants.
“A lot of visually impaired people have adapted to what exists, but we are giving them this opportunity to come here and learn architecture and change that,” Ho said.