Redesigning a campus that prioritizes the needs of the deaf and signing community
Building a center for the deaf and hard of hearing is a learning journey for our progressive design-build Skanska team members in southwest Washington.
Since fall 2021, our Portland team has applied their design-build expertise to Washington’s Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Youth (CDHY) expansion project.
Notions of what it takes to construct a new academic center for the Washington School for the Deaf in Vancouver, Washington, are being reimagined as our team connects to a student population’s unique learning needs.
Project Executive Alan Halleck, DBIA, AIA, practiced architecture for 10 years and worked in construction for 15 years before joining Skanska, so he is no stranger to a design-build project with many moving parts.
Still, leading others on our CDHY expansion project consists of new variables in the design and construction process.
CDHY currently serves more than 120 students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade. The school was founded before Washington became a state and classrooms within the academic campus haven’t been updated since 1974.
With the help of our design partner Mithun, our Portland team is helping to design and construct a new academic and physical education building, with a media center and renovated parking lot. Once complete, the 48,000 square-foot building will continue serving grades K-12.
Construction is slated to finish in time for the 2024-25 school year.
For Alan and others involved, the experience has been both fulfilling and stretching, in more ways than one.
“Working on a school to support the deaf and hard of hearing community has been extremely rewarding and educational. We incorporated student feedback into the unique design to make sure the center meets students’ needs,” says Vice President, Account Manager Trevor Wyckoff. “We’re proud to be part of a project that helps build a better society for everyone.”
Adapting design to support students’ learning pathways
Currently, team members are laser-focused on understanding the learning and communication style of those in the deaf community, as the needs of deaf people differ from hearing people. Doing so has informed every step of the design process to help meet diverse needs.
Modifications to life’s common fixtures—including wider hallways and sidewalks, revolving doors, glass corners and U-shaped seating areas that allow for visual communication—are staples in construction for the deaf.
“Many of us walk with someone on the sidewalk and don’t fully look at the person we’re talking to,” says Alan. “In building this school, wider passageways, at six to eight feet minimum for example, are necessary. More space allows for students to be able to stand far enough apart to look at each other and sign.”
DeafSpace guidelines further inform design-process
Designing to meet deaf and bilingual education requirements has been a first for Alan and Trevor.
To ensure project success, the pair lean on the expertise of individuals central to the deaf community: DeafSpace design consultants Hansel Bauman and Robert T. Sirvage.
Hansel has been at the helm of projects for decades that “enhance cultural and sensory experiences within buildings.”
In 2006, he founded the DeafSpace Project which led to the development of the DeafSpace Design Guide. For the CDHY expansion, that guide is a blueprint.
The DeafSpace Design Guide outlines five principles and elements for designers to consider when approaching a project: Space and Proximity, Mobility and Proximity, Acoustics, Sensory Reach, and Light and Color.
The comprehensive manual provides a window into how deaf and hard of hearing individuals experience the world and take in information.
Robert’s design sense and connection to the deaf community has also been incredibly helpful to the team in the project’s early stages.
“The deaf community is a very tight knit group. During the validation phase, Robert helped us understand that,” says Alan. “He emphasized that we should engage the students in the design process.”
Partnering with students
Students participated in several workshops in the past year to gather candid feedback.
“We asked them to share their favorite place on campus, inside and outside, and why. We then had them draw pictures of what they thought the building should look like,” says Alan.
In smaller groups of 15, some students engaged with project architects and site plans. Using color coded blocks, they designed their school, creatively merging classrooms, a library, a gym and more into a cohesive map.
Earlier this year, middle and high school CDHY students jumped further into the design process with the help of drones.
Our Portland team brought drones to campus so students could see how technology supports a project’s overall design and execution. During the visit, Emerging Technology Project Manager Brooke Gemmell shared how using drones and technology is evolving in construction.
Currently, drones are being used for the school expansion to scan and photograph the campus.
Superintendent Shauna Bilyeu, who is hard of hearing herself, fondly reflected on the day’s activity in an article published by The Columbian: “Our students are so visual; they don’t get experiences like this often.”
Connecting with the client leads to language learning and more
The unique nature of this project trickles all the way down to the very language our Skanska team members use to communicate with our client.
In addition to the students, many CDHY staff members are deaf or hard of hearing and use ASL as their primary mode of communication. The school is an ASL-English bilingual school and prides itself on being a culturally inclusive space for everyone.
“Usually when you present as the architect or contractor, you’re so excited, you start talking without hesitation,” says Alan. “We’ve learned that we must incorporate pauses. Then we wait for our audience to take in the slide’s information and look at the interpreter communicating the message.”
Beyond learning how to modify meetings, team members are returning to a formal learning environment themselves to better connect with CDHY staff. In January 2021, Alan, Trevor, the project’s design manager and three architects began taking ASL together.
On a personal level, Alan’s enthusiasm for the project continues today as he coordinates moments of synergy between Skanska, Mithun and CDHY.
Structural engineer partner PCS Structural Solutions has two employees who are Building Information Modeling (BIM) operators and are also deaf. Recently, one of those operators visited CDHY and spoke with students. In the meeting, students were eager to engage and ask the operator questions about his career journey.
Gatherings like this are meant to help students expand their thinking about possible future careers.
“A lot of them might not have considered unique career pathways like this. This is our chance to give back and share with them,” says Alan.