Architecture: Britain's first feel-good building: Architects have met the challenge of designing a centre for the visually impaired using texture, lighting, colour and smell. Ken Elkes reports

Click to follow
GROPING around a busy Tube station in the middle of London wearing dark glasses may seem an eccentric first stage in the design of a building. But for one group of architects it was an essential part of the research for a pioneering centre in Bristol for people with impaired vision.

The site, in an industrial area of Bedminster, has been transformed into a training complex with facilities for people who have recently lost their sight and need to acquire a range of new skills to help them to adjust.

The pounds 1.5m needed to build it has been raised by the Bristol Royal Society for the Blind, which hopes to help blind people to take a more active role in everyday life through training in Braille, domestic skills, typing and social activities. The society, celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, estimates that many thousands of blind people from the area will take advantage of the facilities each year.

For architects from the Alec French Partnership, the first innovative step was to try to acquire first-hand experience of particular problems associated with different degrees of blindness. The design team, led by Richard Lee, spent several days wearing specially designed glasses and goggles.

A day out and about in the capital included a trip on the London Underground, where a combination of commuters, escalators and ticket machines brought home the many problems of life without sight.

'Architecture is a very visual profession, so we needed to understand how blind people cope,' Lee explains. 'To do this we wore a variety of spectacles simulating effects such as tunnel vision and blurred sight. It was important for us to understand that many registered blind people can detect changes in light and colour contrasts.

'Wearing those glasses,' he says, 'you become aware of simple hazards such as changes in floor level and the way that different sources of lighting can cause confusion.'

An essential component in the planning stage of the building came from blind people themselves. Three-dimensional tactile plans were made, allowing blind advisers to go on an imaginary walk through and around the building using their fingers, while Richard Lee provided a commentary.

A proposed first-floor gallery overlooking the main lobby was dropped after it was pointed out that voices and noises floating down from above would confuse visitors. Acoustics were a prime consideration throughout the design process. 'We had to try to create a very dry and direct acoustic, without a lot of echo,' Lee says. 'For obvious reasons, you needed to know from which direction a voice was coming. Choosing relatively soft materials for furniture and floor coverings along with upholstered acoustic ceilings was the solution.'

Some features common to public buildings - such as changes in floor levels and low-level plant beds - were also ruled out. 'Anything that obstructs the main floor space, even branches from a tree, was simply not feasible,' Lee explains.

But has the visual quality of the building been sacrificed? Lee thinks not. The design team, he says, has tried hard to give the building its own flavour, principally through contrasts in colour, light and texture.

Most of the rooms are grouped around a lengthy central corridor that opens into a series of small lobbies. In each one the quality of light changes with the help of large windows and roof lights, which admit more daylight. Some visually impaired people can detect the contrast.

Doors to each of the rooms are grouped in the lobbies for ease of access, with door frames and handles picked out in contrasting colours. Light switches also have a contrasting panel so that they can be identified.

For people with more serious visual impediments, each of the lobbies has a different floor texture that can be easily detected. And as an additional aid, the entire building has a hand rail running round it embossed with Braille messages and letter shapes to tell people where they are; the rail was made a contrasting colour to the wall.

Many of the practical training areas share the same attention to detail. In the fitted kitchen, tiles behind the sink and other units are colour-coded, while handles on cupboards at head height are marked out to stop users banging their heads on open doors.

The central feature of the building's design is the reception lobby. The reception desk is strategically placed so that sighted staff can look down the main corridor, as well as keep an eye on both entrances and the stairs.

In the main lobby there is also a social area that has furniture - with soft edges - grouped around a series of wooden columns built by a local shipbuilder. The smooth columns and tactile paintings add to the lustre of the whole building.

'Anything that would have confused the blind visitor - coloured glass in windows for example - had to be ditched,' Lee says. 'Yet, for all that, the building does have its own visual interest because of bright colour contrast and also because it is exploits our sense of touch.'

Although there was little space left outside the building for landscaping, ingenuity has created a landscape of smell. Running alongside the building is a small plotted area with a series of scented plants and herbs. And, near the main entrance, there is a small fountain, which is not only easy

on the ear but also acts as an acoustic cue, indicating the main entrance.

At one stage during the design, Lee attended a course run by Bristol University that offered blind people the opportunity to design their own dream house. The architect was 'amazed and intrigued by the concepts and the difference in design between people born blind and those who have a memory of life with sight.'

'Those born blind designed buildings that were extremely functional, especially in complex areas of the home such as bathrooms and kitchens,' he explains.

'But people who have developed sight loss have a more nostalgic view. One person created a circular house - which would seem to be the worst possible design for the blind.'

The architectural team Lee has led has also come to admire the function of the building and the work of the Bristol Royal Society for the Blind.

'I now know how a centre like this with its incredible staff will help blind people take a bigger and more confident role in everyday life,' he says.

(Photographs omitted)