Designing and Redesigning Homes for the Deaf

by Becky BlantonDecember 7, 2016

Designing wheelchair bound, or “other abled” home design is easy enough when it comes to making homes wheelchair accessible. But a recent commercial remodel proved to be an entirely new design challenge for Mark Scott, owner of MARK IV Builders. MARK IV is a residential design-build remodeling company based in Washington, DC. “We take on anything we think is a challenge,” he said. But even he was surprised by what he learned when he was asked to turn an auto and truck garage into a 3,400 square foot home inside the District of Columbia. He had several challenges in remodeling the space, from dealing with zoning to designing a large industrial space that worked for both the deaf couple and their two hearing children.

“I learned a lot,” said Scott, describing his introduction into “deaf space,” the art of designing interiors and home spaces for deaf people. “First I learned my clients were ‘deaf,’ not hearing impaired or disabled,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re deaf, not broken.’ Then I learned everything else.” Everything else included learning how deaf people move, communicate and interact with the world around them. His first stop was Gallaudet University, the world’s only university in which all services and spaces are specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students. The school was founded in 1864 by an Act of Congress signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. ”

Deaf Space

“Deaf space is the physical space deaf people live in,” Scott said. “We had to learn how to adjust things, design things and use everything from the materials to line of sight in an entirely different way.” He began by contacting architects at Gallaudet University, where he quickly learned that architect Hansel Bauman had worked with the ASL Deaf Studies Department at Gallaudet University to establish the Deaf Space Project (DSP) in 2005. The project produced a catalog of over one hundred and fifty architectural design elements that proved invaluable, Scott said. “They told us about the major differences between deaf experiences and their environment. According to Gallaudet, the catalog specifically addresses: “… space and proximity, sensory reach, mobility and proximity, light and color, and finally acoustics.”
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“Designing deaf space is all about making sure the family or occupants are safe, that they can communicate well in the space and that they’re comfortable there,” he said.

Sound or acoustics. “What surprised me most,” Scott said, “Was learning that 40 percent of deaf people use some sort of hearing aid, like cochlear implants. So we still had to pay attention to acoustics. The space was a post-industrial design with a lot of hard surfaces, which causes reverberation and reverberation drive people with hearing aids crazy.” Rather than add very expensive, sound deadening drywall, Scott, and his clients opted for tapestries instead. They also avoided building parallel walls, which also tend to increase reverberation.

There were other places vibration was needed and even desired. “I noticed the couple kicking the floor or hitting a table to get each other’s attention,” said Scott. Using their interpreter Scott said, “I pointed out that no matter how hard they kicked the marble floor it wasn’t going to vibrate. So, we put in a wood floor.”
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Appliances and even things like a furnace turning on can also send out vibrations that need dampening. “It’s amazing how many things we don’t think about until we start designing these projects,” he said.

Other Challenges

Some of the design challenges his team faced were unique to the deaf space design process. “Deaf people read their environment differently,” he said, including noticing things like moving shadows, and people’s expressions. That means lighting and line of sight are important.

“You can think of ‘line of sight’ in two different respects for this home,” said Scott. “From the home’s exterior, it was important to minimize line of sight to protect privacy to the extent possible. Light coming into a room can also affect deaf occupants if it’s too strong or too weak, like a blinding morning or afternoon sun. We had to cut new openings in walls, and place alarms and lights in strategic locations so the mother could see the children when she was working or cooking because she couldn’t hear them.” Ten-inch-wide vertical glass panels were installed in the children’s rooms so that they could see flashing lights in the hallways and living areas when they were in the children’s rooms.

Physical space. “Hallways need to be wider,” said Scott. “Not just for signing, but for being able to step back far enough to see someone else who was signing. Deaf people need more personal space to communicate effectively.” Scott made sure his team minimized the use of walls in the main living area and kept the space largely free of visual barriers. Where walls were installed they used glass panels or other openings to help improve visual access.
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“Even the semi-circular shape of the kitchen island was designed so that people seated around it could more easily face one another. There were all sorts of nuances regarding sightlines that we tried to consider and accommodate, things like placing the stove so the cook looks outward so they can see and be part of what is going on in the room.”

These design elements could also work for seniors and the elderly who are hard of hearing, he said. Scott urges anyone redesigning any space to spend time getting to know the occupant’s needs, including understanding their lifestyle, medical conditions or other challenges. “It can make all the difference,” he said.


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About The Author
Becky Blanton
Becky Blanton is a full-time ghostwriter and writing coach for Fortune 500 companies, CEOs, and business speakers. In 2009 she spoke at TED Global at Oxford University, her first ever public speaking gig. When she's not writing, she's kayaking in the Chesapeake Bay. Her dream home is to live aboard a sailing or houseboat.

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