IHCD sponsored a series of workshops at ABX in November.

#1. Socially Sustainable Design:  Creating a Massachusetts Model of Inclusive Cultural Environments

Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC), the Commonwealth is pioneering a first-in-the-nation development of inclusive design guidelines for the cultural sector. The Institute for Human Centered Design and VSA Massachusetts are creating the guidelines with VSA Massachusetts building on effective practices from across the globe. These guidelines will focus on outcomes rather than fixed standards with the goal that everyone can access, use, and understand the environment independently and naturally, regardless of ability or age. Access to culture is a basic human right and central to socially sustainable communities.  


Valerie Fletcher, Executive Director: Institute for Human Centered Design

Anita Walker, Executive Director: Massachusetts Cultural Council

Dr. David Bonnett, RIBA, London

Peter Kuttner, Cambridge Seven

The message:  There is a significant difference between being accommodated and being invited.  Valerie Fletcher ably set the stage and made the case for creating great design at the intersection of environmental sustainability and social sustainability.

Changing demographics include several interesting statistics: 1 in 7 worldwide have a disability.   86% of childhood disabilities are brain-based.  In short, disabilities are not always evident.  “11% of people in Massachusetts have disabilities, 13% are over 65 and experiencing the loss of vision, hearing and mobility associated with aging.  That’s approximately 1.6 million people in Massachusetts.  Any organization, who isn’t deliberately designing for access and inclusion, is likely coming up short.” (VSA Massachusetts)

Anita Walker is passionate and compelling about the work she is initiating in Massachusetts to create a Model of Inclusive Cultural Environments.  Her goals include defining accessibility, abolishing “separate” and developing and broadening audiences.  Simply put:  it is critical to erase functional barriers to participation. This starts with the website, continues through to the facility, programs and exhibits.

The State of Massachusetts with support from the National Endowment for the Arts has set aside $15 million towards these efforts.

The guidelines under development have LEED as a model in that they will explain, teach and reward with levels of certification.  And as with LEED, the entry level does NOT add expense to the projects.

For example, the #1 Mental Health Issue today is anxiety.  Through careful website development, one can “know before you go.” Knowing what to expect once there can increase overall comfort and as a result raise the probability of a successful outing to a museum or theater, for example.

Issues can crop up in balancing accessibility with historic preservation.  The message was to collaborate with local authorities and the actual patrons (as well as the museum leadership, of course) to create the best outcomes.

Examples presented by the panelists ranged from the Norman Rockwell Museum Studio to the Children’s Museum and Science Museum in Boston and on to the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, the London Coliseum and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in England.

Bottom Line: The Massachusetts Cultural Council and in their collaboration with the Institute of Human Centered Design and VSA Massachusetts are creating a ground-breaking model for inclusive cultural environments.  Not only do cultural groups with facilities have the opportunity to apply for grant money to make their spaces and programs accessible, but we will also have the new Design Guidelines to enhance our projects and to serve as a model nationally.

Links to Massachusetts Cultural Council programs:



Link to VSA Massachusetts:


Link to Institute for Human Centered Design:


#2. A Quest for Balance: Designing for Sensory and Cognitive Diversity Socially Sustainable Design

Even the most committed practitioners of inclusive design struggle balancing features that facilitate the experience of people with sensory limitations and those that support people with cognitive issues. Three of the premier experts in the field will share current research and practice examples. John Zeisel, Ph.D., author of Inquiry by Design and I’m Still Here and President of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care and Co-Founder of ARTZ is Artists for Alzheimer’s® highlights insights from neuroscience about what’s effective for people with cognitive conditions. Hansel Bauman, director of campus design and planning at Galluadet University will share his perspective from the emerging field of DeafSpace. Gina Hilberry will discuss techniques responsive to low vision and blindness, particularly with wayfinding and effective communication. Together they will discuss the overlaps and conflicts between these sensory and cognitive challenges and explore how recent insights and methods can help designers find a balance.


Gina Hilberry, Architect/Principal – Cohen Hilberry Architects

Hansel Bauman, Director – Gallaudet University

John Zeisel Ph.D., President – Hearthstone Alzheimer Care

“People from different cultures not only speak different languages but inhabit different sensory worlds.”  Edward Hall.

This panel began with the discussion of the Deaf Space Project which is working to codify a vernacular pattern language to create design guidelines. Examples of the types of issues include those of classroom design.  The ideal classroom layout is a horseshoe shaped table that enables everybody to see each other, class size is limited to 15 at Gallaudet rather than the usual 25, 30 or even 35 at many colleges and universities.  Other requirements are for wider halls and sidewalks to accommodate American Sign Language.  Likewise, lighting should be glare free and there should be no backlighting so that lips and faces can be read.  Intersections and corners should be cut back and soft.  Offices might have a vibratory zone to announce visitors as visual doorbells are too startling. It is a close-knit community and students walk together and look out for each other.

The greatest success occurred when the community (the students) became involved in projects from the beginning through cost-cutting and on to construction.  The architect and the campus architect called this approach “handing over the pencil.”

Gina Hilberry went on to discuss Vision and Design.  Blindness was defined as not being either/or but as wildly varied.  For example, when we are young it takes 10 seconds to recover from a sharp light/dark contrast or glare. When we are older it takes 1.5 minutes. Beacons are critical for orientation and to establish direction of movement. Outside the visually impaired are reading sounds, the sun and air movement.  Environments are most successful that enrich information: audio, tactile, visual, and olfactory.  Redundant information is critical.  Big open layouts are a problem – how does one get one’s bearings? There needs to be clarity in cues, edges and targets.

John Zeisel spoke about his work with the elderly and those with dementia. He maintains a philosophy of “person-centered design” rather than “patient-centered design.”

As our brains mediate our environments, the physical spaces need to reinforce one’s sense of self. Many of the themes are constants across all people:  the draw of the warm hearth; the use of landmarks to reduce anxiety; the desire for a sense of safety; and the need for a connection to nature.  Dr. Zeisel was quick to point out award-winning designs that didn’t work due to confusing circulation paths, spaces with no clear role (is it the living room or a lobby?),  prominent doors that should not be accessed, and illogical space planning (why aren’t the restrooms next to the coffee room?)  Vision has often yellowed and a greater amount of light on tasks is needed. Supports for autonomy are critical.

In short, enabling sensory comprehension reduces executive function issues and cuts down on agitation, wandering, aggression, hallucinations, social withdrawal and depression.

Bottom Line:  The challenge is to make design of physical environments both “award-winning” and truly functional for the users and residents- it must work on all levels.

#3. Design Strategies and Technologies for the Blind and Visually Impaired

It’s hard to contemplate architecture without sight. It’s harder yet to design for architecture that is unseen or not seen well. Nevertheless, the decisions we make, and don’t make, profoundly affect the visual and non-visual accessibility of our work. Chris Downey, AIA, who has been blind since 2008, leads a presentation about the architectural experience of the blind and visually impaired. The development of visual impairment software that filters digital renderings to demonstrate how the same clear view would be seen through various types and levels of visual impairment will be introduced. This altered view allows designers to adjust their work as it relates to glare, contrast, shadows, patterns, light levels, and form. Technologies such as the Arup SoundLab will also be discussed, showing that the acoustic character of a building can be used to create contextual experiences and real-time interactive feedback.


Chris Downey, Founder – Architecture for the Blind

Gordon Legge, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience – University of Minnesota

Joshua Cushner, Associate Principal – ARUP

Chris Downey is a compelling speaker on architecture for the blind.  Most architecture is reviewed by how it looks – 80% worth.  All the other senses comprise the remaining 20%.  The 20% needs to take greater prevalence!

Only 6-8% of those of the 3.5-5 million Americans with visual impairments have no sight at all.  The difficulties of those with limited or no sight to navigate both interior and exterior public spaces were detailed – beginning with the need for edges and curbs to allow navigation by cane.  One can’t go “straight” anywhere without such guides!

Color is not reliable in low vision.  For example, in a home the dishes should be in high contrast to the counter top.  Counters work best with high contrast edges.  Hardware needs to read well.

Photographs of a lobby with exterior glazing, a railing and a stair down were shown in black and white at different times of the day.  It became very difficult to read whether or not the dark shape on the floor was a shadow or the void of the stair!

Dr. Legge has done additional studies testing both the perception of stairs up and stairs down for those with low vision.  The photometrically and geometrically accurate 3-D renderings can test spaces with filters to simulate reduced vision.

The findings reinforce how complex the geometry, lighting and surface properties of spaces are to read and interpret.  We as designers have little insight into what real world visual cues determine visual accessibility.  It seems that normally sighted people often don’t “get it.”

The bottom line:  We need to bring in the right individuals to consult on our projects and we need more targeted research on what works in physical environments.

Link to Chris Downey’s TED Talk:


Gordon Legge at university of Minnesota: