APRIL 27, 2023 — On a recent Wednesday, UTSA architecture students prepared for visitors who would soon review their designs. They helped each other tape architectural renderings on the wall and neatly align corresponding models of their floorplans on tables.
This review was different for the group. Something important was on the line.
The class, led by Neda Norouzi, an assistant professor in the UTSA School of Architecture and Planning, has been collaborating with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Center for Architects at San Antonio and disABILITYsa, a local nonprofit organization advocating for people with disabilities, to design a health center for people who are blind or visually impaired.
The course encourages students to practice evidence-based design and gives them experience using architecture as a tool to apply in real word settings.
Students are also gaining lessons in compassion, empathy and the impact design can have on people, Norouzi explained.
“We are interviewing with local San Antonians who are visually impaired or blind to better understand their needs from the built environment,” Norouzi said. “The data collected from these conversations are being used as the foundation of students' design.”
Wendy Walker, president of the San Antonio Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind Texas, traced her fingers along the raised floorplan where walls would be built as students described the layout. She provided the students with feedback on architectural solutions that could be improved and the design elements that she found especially innovative.
“I didn’t want to over-design. I wanted to design an experience in itself,” said Justin Joyce, a senior architecture student. “I wanted to give people independence and control of their movements.”
His project, “Touch of Echo,” seeks to give independence by using simplistic forms of wayfinding, a method that guides people through physical environments and enhances their perception of a space. He used texture, sound and artificial intelligence as the three main architectural features for the health campus he designed.
Joyce incorporated wayfinding in the form of a textured wall to help individuals decipher which direction they are heading by moving their hand either along the smoother edges, which led further into the building, or along the sharp edges that indicate the exit is nearby.
He found his inspiration among a group of rocks settled in San Pedro Creek. Joyce noticed how one side of the rocks was polished smooth but rough on the other side where the stream had carved a unique texture.
“I pictured my hand grazing these rocks and I could tell which way I was going depending on the texture. That inferred my design. This is my first exploration into universal design. It’s another dimension of a puzzle we were already learning in previous studios,” Joyce said.
Universal design (UD) is defined as the development of products and environments that are usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.
Although the concept of universal design is well-documented, the unique design needs of persons who are blind or partially sighted have not always been fully considered or incorporated into the built environment, according to the World Blind Union.
Melanie Cawthon, cofounder and executive director of disABILITYsa, said the experience for students is important, even if their paths don’t lead to a career that focuses on designs for people who are blind or visually impaired.
“On a scale from 1 to 10, it’s 10. They’re helping put focus on part of the population that has been left out of the conversation. Design and programs that are inclusive take planning and knowledge so when we do include that in the educational system, we don’t miss out on those opportunities to be inclusive,” Cawthon said.
The students will present their final projects on May 3 at the Center for Architecture, located at 1344 S Flores St., from 4 to 6 p.m.
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