What Legat Has Learned About the Architecture of Accessibility and Future-Proofing

We continue our discussion with Legat Architects.  Last week we introduced you to the suburban firm with the West Loop outpost that’s focused on the education, healthcare, and institutional sectors.

Today, Chief Design Officer Ted Haug, Principal Jeff Sronkoski, and President/CEO Patrick Brosnan explain to us how being focused on those markets means accessibility is a high priority.  And an ever-changing one.

Ted Haug, Patrick Brosnan, and Jeff Sronkoski. If U2 was a Chicagoland architecture firm instead of an Irish rock band, this is what the cover of The Joshua Tree would have looked like.

Ted Haug, Patrick Brosnan, and Jeff Sronkoski. If U2 was a Chicagoland architecture firm instead of an Irish rock band, this is what the cover of The Joshua Tree would have looked like.

Jeff Sronkoski:  With any institution, the concept of accessibility for all is important. Right now we’re working in Cleveland designing a pre-K-8 school where about 25% of the students are in wheelchairs and about 55% have I.E.P’s, which is an Individualized Education Plan. So it’s a special ed center that focuses on students with multiple needs.

It’s changing our perspective on how we think about access, entry, the experience of walking down the hallway, opening a door. We ask the question, “What if 100% of the children had difficulty moving, how would we design the building differently? With a standard door, what can we do differently?” We’re looking at wider doors, rolling doors, overhead doors as options for that type of facility. So we look at the institution’s needs and then come up with creative solutions.

Ted Haug: We’re trying to do it in such a way that it doesn’t look like a school for challenged students. The whole concept of universal design is that if it’s good enough for people who are disabled, then it’s good enough for everybody else, too. And there are things that are good for all buildings, like natural light and easy wayfinding. A number of the students have visual impairments, so that’s very important. The way we lay it out has to be simplistic so that you don’t go down, right, left to find something. The wayfinding has to be more simplistic.

Sronkoski:  It’s a more democratic way of thinking about design.

Patrick Brosnan: You’ve got to put yourself in the position of those students. So we meet with the visual impaired instructors and talk about what those students’ experiences are like.

We talk about natural light, well be careful with natural light because if it’s too bright you end up with a glare. Because these students are able to perceive changes in color and light so if it’s too bright it can distract them.

Also, if 25% of students are always in a wheelchair, what do we do with the window heights to make sure they’re able to be used by everybody?

A lot of hallways will have handrails for students that have cerebral palsy, or have limited movement, or maybe they’re recovering from an accident. So with the handrails we thought it would be a really cool idea if the north-south hallways had one type of handrail, and then the east-west hallways would have a gnarled [texture] so the students would know their direction. Immediately the visual impaired teachers said absolutely not. Because the hallways in this building are going to teach [the students] how to wayfind in a grocery store or an apartment building and up and down the block, so [they] want them to have that challenge. Don’t make it difficult, but also don’t give them a crutch that they’re not going to have when they go to a high school building or a grocery store.

Sometimes it’s the change in air pressure as they navigate that they’ll recognize as they walk through a the intersection in a building. Or sometimes it’s a sound. The way air moves down a hallway. All of those experiences they want the students to have so that they learn how to map it out in their head.

Editor: Do you find that some of the things you learn in the educational realm are useful when designing other kinds of buildings?

Brosnan:  Over the last five years, LEED has become universal in all market segments because everyone is challenged with those questions. But there’s an amazing cross-learning between the different market segments. Higher education is focusing on healthcare and health sciences, and looking for thing such as simulation labs. And within hospitals they’re looking for simulation labs. There’s been a crossover between municipal design and the Homeland Security training centers at some of the community colleges. So they’re looking for similar types of spaces, but in a different type of institution. So it’s been fun for designers to say “Wait a second, I know how to do that but I don’t normally work in a higher ed environment; I’m more healthcare.” So there’s a great crossover to infuse talent between teams.

Sronkoski:  It does help when we do come across health sciences projects in higher ed. it helps that we have a healthcare group that can inform some of the simulation spaces.

Editor: We’ve seen some municipalities being pro-active about repurposing their buildings. Asking for buildings like elementary schools to be designed so they can be easily converted into elder care homes when the town demographic shifts.

Sronkoski:  We did that 30 years ago with Hawthorne South School! We were commissioned to do this new school and the board asked the question back then, “Knowing that the population and demographics are changing, what can we do with this school when it no longer needs to be a school?”

The demographics are changing now. Our birth rate is half what it was during the baby boom when I was born. I think it’s 2.1 children per family right now. It used to be double that. So, when we did it, we designed the school for 36 classrooms. And then we showed how each classroom could also be used as a senior housing unit. It was a one-story school, and so it was perfect for accessability.

Haug:  What’s funny about it, though, is that they put two more additions onto that school because demand was so high; and they built two complete new campuses as a result of population change. So I’m not sure [the nursing home] is ever going to come to fruition, but that was the initial concept.

Brosnan:  The New Lennox school district built an early childhood center and had the same question. The first building they built was specifically for pre-K and K students, and they didn’t understand the concept of it. So I was scratching my head and came back to the office, and Jeff said wait a second, let’s get Casey on the phone and talk healthcare because there might be an opportunity there. They looked at the plans we had already developed and they said, “You know what? All you have to do is add a shower to each one of those toilet rooms that you already have and it would be a great independent living center. Because we already had the gymnasium for activities. We had the library for a reading room. We had the cafeteria space for serving meals. And each classroom was already set up with water [service] and had the ability to add small kitchens. With some minor modifications it could be converted to a small independent living center, which would have 20 units.

We have to think of future-proofing. These walls will be here for 50 or 60 years, so how do we make sure they are appropriately designed and established for changing models. The big thing we see today is that wherever possible we’re putting in less load-bearing masonry in order to make sure we have flexibility for technology and other systems that go in those walls.

And there’s a whole discussion being had now about the idea of transparency in an educational environment — the ability to see into a space before you enter. The whole discussion right now is being had in terms of what’s good for education and for learning, but also how do we make sure it’s secure and you can lock down a building appropriately. So we’re looking at more non-load-bearing walls. More steel frame or concrete structures that answer to those changes over time. So we can add a window, we can add technology, we can create flexibility for future spaces.

Editor

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

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