Blind Bay Area Architect Christopher Downey Designed Cutting Edge Facility
It’s the blind leading the blind. When the Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco (www.ilrcsf.org) opens its new state-of-the-art facility this Saturday, July 26 – the 24th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act – this often negative cliché will become a high compliment, especially to the facility’s architect, Christopher Downey of the Bay Area: one of the world’s very-few, working, blind architects.
“Both the visually impaired and the sighted rely on information and architectural cues to navigate the built environment,” says Downey, who lost his sight in 2008 following surgery to remove a tumor that was pressing on his optic nerve. “I draw upon my experience as an architect to help design teams and client organizations to create enriching environments for the visually impaired and, not coincidentally, the sighted as well.”
Downey, 51, starts each day rowing with the East Bay Rowing Club on the Oakland Estuary before commuting on public transit to his office in San Francisco. He has been featured in local, national and international media stories and speaks regularly about architecture and visual impairment including his inspirational TED Talks. He also teaches accessibility and universal design at UC Berkeley and serves on the Board of Directors for the Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco. Downey consults on design for the blind and visually impaired, encompassing specialized centers as well as facilities serving the broader public. His work ranges from a new Department of Veterans Affairs blind rehabilitation center, to renovations of housing for the blind in New York City, and to the new Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco.
“With over 98,000 people with disabilities in the City of San Francisco, we know that our goal of expanding access for all was ambitious, especially given the current real estate climate, but that didn’t stop us, and Chris was integral to helping us realize our dream,” says Jessie Lorenz, Executive Director of the Independent Living Resource Center, noting that fully 25% of their clients are current conflict vets with disabilities. “We exist to ensure that people with disabilities are full social and economic partners, both within their families and in a fully accessible community. What a perfect way to mark almost a quarter century of the ADA and the lives this law has improved.”
According to Lorenz, the Independent Living Resource Center’s new facility at 825 Howard Street is “truly a community center.” It is a purpose-built, ground floor, fully accessible location in the heart of San Francisco’s South of Market district. An integral part of its neighborhood, the new center is a welcoming place with street appeal where people with disabilities feel comfortable dropping in, participating in workshops, and seeking support and information as they establish or maintain their independence.
“Our new home was designed and built to anticipate disability as the rule, not the exception,” Lorenz emphasizes. “It has an open floor plan guided by a forward-thinking green design that is made expressly for enhancing community for people of all abilities. We endeavored to create space to allow for dynamic interaction and group presentations. The lobby will be for waiting, greeting, and exhibiting veteran and community artwork. The built environment will showcase the best principles of accessible design, responding to the growing needs of a technologically savvy disabled community.”
Additionally, Schindler Elevator Corporation, a pioneer in building mobility, has partnered with the Independent Living Resource Center to pilot the next generation of features for PORT Technology, an innovative destination-dispatching system that revolutionized the way people move through buildings.
Founded in 1977, the Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco exists to ensure that people with disabilities are full social and economic partners, both within their families and in a fully accessible community. ILRCSF core values are: Choice: the right of individuals and families to make informed decisions about their own lives. Persons with disabilities are experts on their own needs. Consumer leadership creates an accessible community. Full access to and inclusion in the community for all people with disabilities means the same range of choices as the general community. Universal usability means that services, housing and consumer products are designed to be used by all members of the community.
“Establishing a more accessible and visible office will position us as a model community-based center for independent living in an urban area,” Lorenz sums up. “We hope to move from a model of solely offering support and services to individuals with disabilities, to becoming an incubator and community center where the Independent Living Movement can build the next generation of leaders who will be empowered and engaged citizens who are fully integrated in their communities.”
This Saturday’s grand opening events features a free lunch catered by Buca di Bepo and guided tours from 10am – 12noon; 2pm – 3pm. The facility’s official dedication will take place at 1pm