Universal Design – Making helpful buildings, without limits.

60 minutes recently told a story about an architect who lost his eyesight after a brain surgery. In an interview with Leslie Stahl, Chris Downey said that losing his eyes expanded his vision.

“Just nine months after going blind, the recession hit and Downey lost his job. Then he got word that a nearby firm was designing a rehabilitation center for veterans with sight loss. They were eager to meet a blind architect. What are the chances?”

Chris Downey said: “It took my disability and turned it upside down. All of a sudden, it defined unique, unusual value that virtually nobody else had to offer.”

He developed a specialty making spaces accessible to the blind. One solution he came up with allowed people who use canes to navigate the four-block long Transbay Transit Center by setting grooves into the concrete running the entire length of the platform. The subtle change from smooth to textured concrete would signal where to turn to get to escalators and exits. He also used this approach on the renovation of a three-story office space for his old training ground, the LightHouse for the Blind.

Downey’s approach exemplifies the concept of “Universal Design”, incorporating features that accommodate people with disabilities but that are just as appealing to everyone else. Practically everyone may have physical limitations during their lifetime. Universal design can help everyone: babies, children, senior citizens, adults carrying heavy packages.

As we begin to build more of the concepts of Universal Design into everyday tools, building owners will not need to add expensive specialize adaptations. For example, if every building was entered either by a flat doorway or by a long sloping ramp, nobody has to deal with steps. This is good for people with wheelchairs, arthritis, oldsters, children, delivery people. No limitations. Happier people.

Watch a brief summary of Chris Downey’s ideas on designing for everyone.

Read the transcript of the 60 Minutes interview with Leslie Stahl:


Or see the whole 60 Minutes segment on Youtube:


– Pat Adams