Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

News feature: Put design for the deaf on the agenda

Gallaudet university crop
  • 1 Comment

Although the number of people with hearing loss is rising, architects are often unaware of how their buildings can affect deaf people, Kate Youde reports. PLUS Top tips for designing for deaf people

Despite the fact that there are 11 million people in the UK with hearing loss and that number is expected to rise to 14.5 million by 2031, many architects are unaware of the needs of deaf people when designing schemes. 

‘It just hasn’t been on the agenda – and it certainly wasn’t addressed in any way when I was a student,’ says Richard Dougherty, associate at Hall McKnight, who was born profoundly deaf and has two deaf children.  

‘The deaf struggle in the physical environment,’ he says, ‘as it is designed by hearing architects who aren’t aware of the specific issues that matter to deaf people. The pursuit of some of the more intellectually focused architectural values can often come at the cost of the real experience of people; buildings are for occupation rather than merely subjects of photography and essays.’


The Belfast practice is helping to increase UK architects’ knowledge of designing for deaf people following its international competition win last year for a £40 million overhaul of Gallaudet University in Washington DC (pictured above), a bilingual university where classes are taught in American Sign Language (ASL) as well as English. 

The three-stage contest was organised by Malcolm Reading Consultants which, as well as hosting design charrettes, organised introductory tours of the campus for each team led by a deaf blind guide without an interpreter (see comments at bottom).

The university is a leader in architectural design for the deaf community, and Hall McKnight is working closely with it on defining the details and learning best practice.

The project is the first time DeafSpace Design Guidelines have been applied to the public realm. These have been developed over the last 12 years by Gallaudet’s department of ASL and deaf studies and campus architect Hansel Bauman. They comprise more than 150 ‘architectural patterns’ that address three ‘touch points’ between the experiences of deaf people and the built environment: visual language and architecture; sensory reach, wayfinding and architecture; and deaf culture and architecture.

The world for a deaf person is their field of vision’ – between 100 and 120 degrees, compared to a hearing person’s 360 degree world

‘Deaf people inhabit a rich sensory world where vision and touch are a primary means of spatial awareness and orientation,’ says Dougherty. ‘Designing for deaf users doesn’t generate some sort of radically different architecture – the differences are in many ways quite subtle – but they are focused on issues that can positively affect our projects for both hearing and deaf people.’ 

Bauman, Gallaudet’s executive director for campus design and planning, believes that once architects learn about the ‘unique design opportunities … they become quite intrigued and determined to take on the challenge’.

This was the case with David Morley Architects. The practice designed the Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children, which opened in September 2015 and is co-located with the King’s Cross Academy in the ground and first floors of the 14-storey Plimsoll Building in London. 

Frank barnes school crop

Frank barnes school crop

Source: John Sturrock

The Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children, designed by David Morley Architects

Practice partner David Morley says one of the key challenges was that ‘the world for a deaf person is their field of vision’ – between 100 and 120 degrees, compared to a hearing person’s 360-degree world. 

A dog-leg staircase is, therefore, ‘a very bad idea’ because you cannot see who is coming; similarly a corridor with a corner is ‘a potential hazard’. The school incorporates straight stairs and curved corridor corners.

Other design features include glazed screens so people can see what is happening; ‘soundfield’ systems that mean a teacher’s voice is consistent throughout a classroom; generous spaces to allow people to stand in a circle and communicate through sign language; a quiet school entrance for more vulnerable deaf children; and a quieter area in the playground dedicated to signing.

Quality of light was ‘absolutely crucial’ to allow people to lip-read and sign, adds Morley, but sound was also extremely important. ‘If you’re partially hearing then what you can hear … is much more acute,’ he says. 

The corner of the Plimsoll Building site was above a railway line so the practice was careful to ensure areas for deaf people, who would be adversely affected by vibrations, were not located in this part of the building.

Recent interior-design trends have seen venues employ lots of hard surfaces … making it much harder for people to have decent conversation

Last year, Action on Hearing Loss launched a Speak Easy campaign to call on restaurants, cafes and pubs to reduce background noise, suggesting poor design is partly to blame for people with hearing loss struggling to socialise in such venues. More than three-quarters (77 per cent) of 1,461 people who completed a survey by the charity in 2015 said they thought restaurants, cafés and bars had become louder in the previous five years. 

‘Recent interior-design trends have seen venues employ bold, sleek aesthetics,’ says a report by the charity. ‘That usually means lots of hard surfaces and high ceilings. 

‘Unfortunately, without furnishings that absorb sound, the high level of noise created by a room full of conversations – and increased further by background music – makes it much harder for many people to have a decent conversation.’

The charity suggests that simple measures, such as ensuring venues are well lit to facilitate lip reading, can make a big difference. Other adjustments include adding rubber feet to chair and table legs, and soft furnishings such as carpets and tablecloths, to minimise background noise; and installing treatments including wall and ceiling panels, which reduce the reverberation time of sounds.

Jo Taylor, campaigns manager at Action on Hearing Loss, says one of the longer-term campaign aims is to look at the architecture industry, including ‘the training and information’ at architects’ disposal.

dRMM associate Steve Wallis is sympathetic. ‘The architecture profession could certainly do more to integrate deaf people into our buildings; considering how they use them and improving education of that would certainly help,’ he says. 

His practice received planning permission in 2013 for its design for new facilities for Exeter Royal Academy for Deaf Education, however the client has since decided to pursue a different option. 

Drmm exeter workshop crop

Drmm exeter workshop crop

An event run by dRMM with students at the Exeter Royal Academy for Deaf Education

Like David Morley Architects, dRMM held extensive consultation with staff and students on its design. Wallis says that, as deaf people are ‘visual communicators’, the practice considered the visual aspects of their design in more detail than usual because glare or shadow could adversely impact on someone’s ability to converse. Proposed design features included wide corridors to allow people to communicate via sign language while moving around the building.

Both Wallis and Morley are interested in designing for the deaf community again. ‘The benefits are not just for deaf people, that’s what’s interesting about it,’ says Morley, suggesting features such as curved corners and glazed screens can enhance everybody’s lives. 

Five top tips for designing for deaf people

From Hansel Bauman, executive director for campus design and planning at Gallaudet University

  1. Provide the best possible visual access to others within a space as well as to the spaces beyond, to encourage social connectivity and to allow for clear visual communication.
  2. Create and allow easy wayfinding and orientation. Spaces should have a clear, memorable spatial configuration that is intuitively understood, in both plan and in section.
  3. Design perceptually calm spaces to minimise eyestrain. Lighting should be diffused, without glare, backlighting or hotspots. Material finishes and colours should minimise distractions yet provide contrasts that aid spatial orientation. 
  4. Reduce barriers to visual communication, especially in gathering spaces where clear sightlines to a wide variety of activities must be maintained. Barriers within circulation spaces such as corridors should also be minimised and mitigated as they pose a hazard to individuals engaged in a group conversation while moving through the space. 
  5. Control vibration, sound reverberation and noise transmission between spaces. Background noises generated by air conditioning, structural borne vibration caused by electrical and air handling equipment, and reverberation of conversation or footfall in a large space can all be distracting, and even painful to individuals using assistive hearing devices. Acoustic qualities for buildings attuned to deaf users should be given the same consideration as those of higher grade performance halls.

 This news feature was published in the Buildings that care issue – click here to buy a copy 

The Gallaudet University competition explained - David Hamilton, director of projects at Malcolm Reading Consultants

In many ways this was our most challenging competition to date. Not only did it extend across three stages, but the intensity of the charrette programme and engagement with users and stakeholders produced a dynamic experience.

The success is definitely a credit to the client, who held a single vision throughout the process whilst allowing the teams to explore alternative design strategies.

It wasn’t easy. The competition stretched everyone, constantly testing all of our comfort zones – one example was the introductory tour of campus arranged for each team by a deaf blind guide without an interpreter.

This was our first competition for an institution in the US. Our practical approach and natural curiosity have a strong appeal. We believe that there are great opportunities for UK designers at all levels.

The project has been a great boost for Hansel Bauman’s DeafSpace Project, adding to the existing resources. There are plans to expand and elevate this work to form a design institute - what greater tribute could there be to the success of the process?

Hall McKnight's competition winning scheme for Gallaudet University

Hall McKnight’s competition winning scheme for Gallaudet University

Hall McKnight’s competition winning scheme for Gallaudet University

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Industry Professional

    This topic is very important as the population ages - so many people develop hearing loss and then give up socialising in pubs and restaurants because they are such difficult environments. The problems are forgotten even in hospitals - how many ENT / hearing clinics have visual fire alarm systems for instance? Please also remember in public buildings and transport centres the provision of telescreens to give the visual equivalent of announcements - how many doctors' surgeries have these? How do they expect deaf people to hear the appointment announcements?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.