By Jenna Johnson, Published: September 30 | Updated: Saturday, September 29, 11:14 PM
Gallaudet University’s newest residence hall has many of the luxury perks that have become common in dorms across the country: suite-style rooms with private bathrooms, kitchens with high-end appliances, communal living rooms with flat-screen televisions, and an in-house gym.
But the building also has subtleties aimed at making Gallaudet’s deaf students feel more comfortable: The kitchen work space is centered in an island so that sign-language conversations can continue as dinner is prepared, stairs are few and walkways are extra wide so conversations can continue as students walk, and many walls are painted a shade of blue that research has found to accentuate hands without straining eyes, as white walls sometimes do.
The Living and Learning Residence Hall, which opened this school year, was designed and built with the input of students who envisioned a place with modern, open architecture and wood accents, like a Chipotle restaurant. They wanted warm, comfortable colors, lighting they could easily change, and lots of places to gather with friends.
“They want to feel like they are at home,” Susan Hanrahan, the school’s director of residence life and a Gallaudet graduate, said in sign language through a translator. “Their dorm rooms help them to release stress, to relax, to feel comfortable.”
Until recently, most of Gallaudet’s buildings were no different than those at other schools, with only faint hints that deaf students and faculty members worked and lived there. That’s changing as the university embraces its history, shares its culture beyond its stone walls and constructs buildings centered around the idea of what it calls “DeafSpace.”
A major focus of such architecture: Creating space that doesn’t get in the way of sign-language conversations that can’t pass through walls.
“Simply the act of opening a door stops a conversation,” said Hansel Bauman, Gallaudet’s director of campus design and planning. Bauman introduced the idea of DeafSpace.
In the new dorm — which covers 60,000 square feet, has 175 beds and cost $18.5 million — doors are few and the main entrances slide open automatically. There are windows and glass walls everywhere. The main staircase is open, allowing a student on the third floor to talk to someone in the lobby.
And there are visual clues that make navigation easy while conversing: Each floor has a different-colored carpet, room numbers pop out from the walls instead of being flattened on doors, and high-traffic walkways have a different-texture flooring than spots where it is okay to mingle.
Sign-language conversations can be difficult to keep private. The Terrace Lounge on the first floor features three tiers connected by a sloping ramp. Sitting on a couch in the top tier allows anyone coming and going to see a conversation and perhaps to join in. The lower tiers have more privacy — and there’s also a seating area around the corner with couches strategically arranged for more intimate conversations.
Designers of the new building deconstructed every element of a traditional dorm to determine its current uses and dream up additional ones.
“What is a hallway? And how do we dig into that?” Robert Sirvage, a former graduate student who is now an adjunct instructor, said through an interpreter. “A hallway is an opportunity to make a new friend, to make new connections.”
The students living in the new dorm have not been overanalyzing their hallways to quite that extent. To them, this is just a comfortable building — and they rave about the fancy kitchens.
“It’s better than I expected. It’s better than my kitchen at home,” signed Amanda Penny, 19, a sophomore biology major from Ohio who is teaching her roommates to cook and loves baking butterscotch cookies. “We need more places like this.”
The residence hall is Gallaudet’s second “DeafSpace” building on campus, and it incorporated lessons learned in the first project, an academic building. And the new dorm will influence other construction projects on campus as Gallaudet takes expensive strides to modernize its campus.
“There are so many variables in the environment,” Bauman said. “You can give it your best shot, but you honestly don’t know [how the building will function] until it is built.”
Bauman also hopes that these lessons can influence national policy and federal accessibility requirements. He has found that the buildings constructed with the deaf in mind have been comfortable places for those with other disabilities. The different floor coverings in the first-floor lounge provide easy visual prompts to deaf students, but a blind student with a cane would also be able to feel those differences. And a deaf student who uses a wheelchair loves that he can enter and exit through all the dorm’s doors, not just the one with an afterthought ramp.
“I can leave at the side. I can leave at that door or that one,” said Jeremy Smith, 21, a sophomore from Virginia. “It’s accessible, truly accessible.”