Don’t say “that’s impossible” to a blind person. At our new Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and Vision Impaired in Richmond, Virginia, the theme of the project was “Imagine the Possibilities”. The first task for DENNIS KOWAL ARCHITECTS was to prove it was possible to redesign and renovate a 21,000 square foot vintage 1960’s building into a modern training center for those with visual impairments. One employee told DKA upon seeing the completed facility, “I don’t know where you found all the extra space; the place looks bigger, brighter and totally new!”
|A glare-free translucent skylight floods the interior resource room with natural light and becomes the hub of the facility.||The student commons which is also used for group discussions is primarily defined by the carpeting and a molded wall that helps to diffuse sound.|
In continuing with the possibilities theme, the next task was to communicate hope to all those that enter, including the families and friends who sometimes accompany a new student. Director, Melody Roanne, Trades Manager of A&E Services, Dr. Richard Fisher, and Virginia Department of the Blind Commissioner, Raymond E. Hopkins, brainstormed with Dennis J. Kowal, AIA, LEED AP, about how the building might encourage and inspire. When Dennis Kowal heard about the blind art work on display at the library and the many accomplishments of graduates, the “Wall of Possibilities” was created to showcase student achievements and to send the message that “nothing is impossible”. The Wall contains video panels that describe how much the graduates have accomplished and actual photos, samples, and testimonials by those who have enjoyed success since leaving the program.
|Some graduates have become artists, doctors, lawyers, journalists and many of the same professions as the sighted. At the new Training Center, “nothing is impossible”.||Instructors often wear “sleep masks” themselves as they train students in mobility. Vocational training, Home Management skills, Braille Reading, and Career Counseling are all offered at the School.|
The building also conveys a message of possibility to future employers. It shows you don’t need special provisions to hire someone with vision impairment. Normal cues like edges and walls are enough to provide navigational tips for mobility. Gone are the images of special hand rails along corridors, garish material changes and warning strips, or extra wide corridors which many wrongly believed would be necessary to hire a blind worker.
Dennis Kowal has a national reputation for designing for the blind and physically handicapped and was invited to be the Design Architect for this project working closely with students, staff, administration, and Taylor Muniz of Moseley Architects, who brought this remarkable transformation in under budget.
|A caring staff train students to use computers and other technologies. A braille mouse, a tactile display, or text to voice software are sometimes all that is needed for full proficiency.||In a bold move, Dennis left an existing column exposed in a hallway to prove that no special provisions are needed by employers to hire the blind.|
Special attention was paid to creating outdoor spaces and typical street environments to practice mobility skills. The spaces also serve as great social and recreational hotspots.