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The LightHouse Building

New LightHouse Board President Chris Downey – Imagining the Future of Blindness

Chris Downey and Hans Bogdanos on the Golden Gate Bridge during his 2011 Blind Cycle Challenge for the LightHouseAt the beginning of January we warmly welcomed LightHouse board member Chris Downey as he stepped up to begin a term as LightHouse Board president. Chris’s background and skills could not be more synergistic with the year ahead as we complete the design and construction of our new San Francisco headquarters. An architect with more than 20 years’ experience in the field, Chris became fully blind in 2008. Chris went on to use his experiences to consult on building design for the blind and visually impaired. Recent projects include a new Department of Veterans Affairs blind rehabilitation center, a remodeler job to the housing for the blind in New York City, and the new Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco. As one of the few practicing blind architects in the world, Chris has been featured in local, national and international media stories and speaks regularly about architecture and blindness. He also teaches accessibility and universal design at UC Berkeley. LightHouse sat down to chat about his journey with blindness and our strong connection.

LightHouse (LH): “Your situation is a little unusual in that you went from full vision to no vision. How has that played out for you?”

Chris: “It is unusual. I had a benign brain tumor in the optic nerve area. I underwent surgery to have the tumor removed. When I woke up from the procedure, I was completely blind. Most people experience diminishing vision over time, so they have time to adjust. I had to learn how to do everything differently very quickly”

LH: “How did you first connect with the LightHouse?”

Chris: “A hospital social worker connected me to the LightHouse. It’s funny, I had a visual memory of the San Francisco building with the braille façade, and so as an architect, I already had a connection with the building. I started by learning O&M skills and braille through the East Bay office.

Many people take six months to a year to go to intensive blind skills-learning programs. I was 45-years-old, in my mid-career years. I had a family, a young son. It was not an option for me to drop out of my life for that long. I was fortunate to be able to go to Enchanted Hills Camp in Napa and participate in an intensive week-long learning session. Connecting with highly productive blind people in this kind of learning environment is very effective. Had there been a San Francisco location with a short, live-in immersive program, that would have been even more ideal. The new LightHouse headquarters will allow us to offer that experience in San Francisco.”

LH: “How did you come to join the LightHouse Board?”

Chris: “Through cycling! I had been an avid cyclist before the surgery. Within 4 months after, I started riding tandem with some of my old cycling buddies. I was cycling again before I could walk the streets. I had been active at my son’s school in Piedmont. Some of the dads from the school got together and bought me a tandem bike from a local bike shop in Piedmont. Well, it so happened that then-LightHouse Executive Director Anita Aaron stopped into the same shop that week to buy a tandem bike as well. The shop owner told her that he had just sold a tandem bike to another blind person. I had returned to work as soon as I could after the surgery and was learning how to do architecture without sight, and had started consulting. Anita was aware of my work as a blind architect and she got the conversation about joining the board started. I joined in 2010.”

LH: “How have things evolved at the LightHouse since then?”

Chris: “Bryan Bashin came on as CEO soon after I joined. The first big change that Bryan made was at Enchanted Hills Camp. We had been contracting out the operations of the camp. Bryan brought the camp management in-house. He hired more blind counselors and blind leadership, and added more camp sessions and types of sessions, including expanding intensive, immersive learning programs. Even at that time, there was a desire bring this immersive programing to San Francisco, but we were limited by our small space. The question of how we could offer week-long sessions in San Francisco arose. The answer was that we had to increase our space. We realized we needed to buy a new property. Things came together beautifully – we had the phenomenal luck of finding a building that was central and that already housed organizations whose work was in line with ours (including the Mayor’s Office on Disability).”

LH: “Can you talk about your personal journey learning to live as a blind person?”

Chris: “I had been an architect for 20 years, and had two university degrees in architecture. I knew I wanted to continue working, but I could not find any blind architects to help me figure it out. There are no self-help books. I went back to my old office. They were incredibly optimistic that I could do it and wanted to help me figure it out. Scott Blanks (now LightHouse’s Senior Director of Programs) had been a mentor of mine and taught me blind tech skills early on. He started coming to the office to train me. Scott is so functional, the office staff insisted that Scott was not blind. Scott raised the expectation at my workplace as to what I could do. They expected that I would be as seamless as Scott. I started to get excited about what I could do.

I was trained to really focus on the environment as an architect, visually, of course. But now I started to focus on the environment through a multi-modality sensory experience – sound, airflow and tactile elements gave me a whole new palette to design with. I got really excited and started to work in a whole new way. Now, I say, if you’re going to lose your sight, get into architecture. You will learn to value other ways of doing things, and free your creativity and problem solve in new ways.” (Check out Chris’ TED Talk on designing for the blind.)

LH: “What’s your vision for your role as LightHouse Board president?”

Chris: “First, I am focused on making the new space our home, as well as taking our new program ideas and making them into a living form, which is exciting and a lot of work. Working as a consultant with the incredibly creative Mark Cavagnero Associates Architects has been amazing. In the process of designing a space for the blind, questions have been asked that have never been asked before. My role is to help nurture the creative process between blind LightHouse staff and volunteers and the architects.

Though the space will be exceptionally advanced, a lot of what is great won’t be noticed. For example, people with low vision can navigate much easier in high contrast, well-lit environments. We worked together to design a space that looks normal, but uses contrast and specialized lighting. Acoustics is another area that is innovative in our new space. Acoustic design is typically not much more than reducing outside noise or separating mechanical spaces to reduce noise. For people who are blind, sound can be used for wayfinding, so we looked at whether there were opportunities to use sound to facilitate navigation. We have worked with our acoustic designers to create a sound environment that helps guide people through the space, so sound does not overwhelm, but instead assists. We are doing more than functional design however. We are asking, how can we make the space delightful to someone without sight? The grip of hand rail, what you feel when you touch the reception desk are things we have considered that are not typically thought about in architecture.

Secondly, we have been incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity of our recent bequest.” (Learn about the LightHouse bequest.) “We are ready to dive into our next strategic plan in 2016. It is the dawn of new day, and it is thrilling to plan for a very exciting future for the LightHouse.”

LightHouse for the Blind Announces the Purchase of 1155 Market Street in San Francisco

Artistic rendering of the new LightHouse Headquarters on Market Street.

Dear LightHouse Supporters,

As we begin the New Year I am delighted to announce publicly details of a major new initiative the LightHouse has been working on for several years.

On December 9th the LightHouse took perhaps the biggest leap in our 114-year history. Those of you who have been close to our operations in recent times know that the new programs, services and expanded community we’ve been building has come at a price – we’ve been bulging at the seams for years. Our caring staff, new technologies and opportunities to hold larger events have been thwarted because we’ve just plain been out of space.

Back in 2007 the LightHouse Board began its journey to explore expansion opportunities at our existing San Francisco headquarters, a converted 1906 garage. Five years later, in 2012, our Board of Directors authorized the search and acquisition of a new expanded home for the LightHouse and the dozens of new programs we have been wanting to launch but couldn’t. In 2014 we found such a building, just three blocks from our current location. Our Board and staff have spent the last year engaging architects, accessible technology vendors and others to design a master plan for nothing less than a 21st Century Center of Excellence.

December 9th was a high point of that journey. In a thrilling final few days we concluded the purchase of 1155 Market St., henceforth to be known as ‘the LightHouse Building.’ That week we also received our final construction permit from the City. We’re now deep into a thorough remodel of the new space.

And what a space it will be! Our renovated 11-story building stands on Market Street smack in the heart of the SOMA high-tech corridor. Our next door neighbors are firms like Twitter, Uber, Spotify, Square, ZenDesk and a hundred more. And the mid-Market neighborhood is seeing the biggest renaissance of hotels, apartments, retail and culture ever. Inside our building some 500 city employees work, including the ground-floor offices of the Mayor’s Office on Disability. We couldn’t have better neighbors, and inside our three floors we’ll be able to build a blindness center like no other. Among the highlights:

  • We’ll triple the size of our old space, including quintupling the number of classrooms, doubling our braille, tactile graphics production, low-vision clinic capacity, and adding dedicated rooms for counseling, crafts, fitness, teleconferences and science education.
  • For the first time, up to 29 LightHouse students will be able to lengthen and intensify their training by staying overnight in our new student dorm rooms. There will be spaces for informal education and just plain fun, too, such as living rooms, student lounges and a second student kitchen.
  • Our new multipurpose rooms will enable us to host three large simultaneous events or one large gathering of nearly 150 people.
  • Our teaching kitchen will offer 12 students the chance to learn and cook together on a variety of stoves and equipment and allow us, for the first time, to teach the entire range of nonvisual cooking techniques.
  • Advanced audio and video technology will allow the LightHouse to host webcasts, author podcasts, and connect blindness organizations, professionals and our community worldwide.
  • We’ll double the size of our blindness products store, Adaptations, as well as adding a second dedicated demonstration space for dozens of the latest high-value technologies ready to be explored.
  • We’re creating an all-new Volunteer Center, including a half-dozen private reading/computing rooms where blind community members can meet volunteers to do everything from online shopping to tax form assistance.

Artistic rendering of the proposed kitchen at the new LightHouse building, showing students and teachers preparing food.

The New LightHouse will be an organization of partnerships. We’ll host conferences, collaborate with our tech community, engage teaching professionals, conduct user experience studies and focus groups. And we’ll do it in a modern office that is warm, welcoming, colorful and playful. The casual visitor may not notice the dozens of subtle accessibility details built into the new space, from integrated tactile cues for cane users to low-vision considerations to make our operations usable for those in every part of the blind and low-vision community. With all these capabilities, we expect we’ll be serving blind people from a far wider area than we can do now, including new national and international offerings. We’re proudest about two qualities of our future headquarters. The first is simply where it is. Fifteen steps out of our front door you’ll find an entrance to BART, Muni and adjacent stops for nearly every major transit agency in the Bay Area. Rain or shine it’ll be so much easier for our students to come and go, making, for example, the trip from downtown Oakland just a 15-minute BART ride.

And most importantly, even with a new 40,000 square-foot headquarters we’re already looking towards the future. 73 percent of the LightHouse Building is now under long-term rental contract by the City of San Francisco. In the years and decades to come, the LightHouse will use this rental as an income source, but will also have the option to expand into any of the eight floors the City now uses. That means that the LightHouse will never have to move again, but instead be able to integrate new services, programs and partnerships right alongside our bustling headquarters, giving us enviable program flexibility deep into the future. All this will cost a lot of money. Luckily in its 114 years the LightHouse has been graced with more than 60,000 individual donors and many individuals have remembered us in their wills. You may have heard of the recent large bequest we’ve received from the estate of Donald Sirkin, which has eased the difficulty in purchasing the building. And the bequest will be very helpful in maintaining a strong endowment that will allow us to offer innovative and diverse programs in the LightHouse Building forever.

That bequest and our innovative plans have helped build excitement among all of our supporters. I’m pleased to report that the quiet phase of our four-year $5 million capital campaign has already resulted in $2 million in contributions from individuals, companies, volunteers and partners. Training rooms, innovation spaces and whole floors are now in the process of being named for these donors, and future visitors will see a constellation of signs remembering people and companies who love our organization and the work our staff does. So, the inevitable question: when will we move in? We can’t wait. Our construction schedule has us starting to occupy the space at the end of March, as renovations are complete. Look for a Grand Opening celebration a few months later, likely in June. If you’ve supported us in the past, you will be on the invitation list and we’ll love showing you what we have built.

I couldn’t conclude this account of our new opportunity without thanking the vision and hard work of our predecessors, who believed in blind people enough to dedicate their lives to finding the resources and love to give us the stability we needed to be audacious. Our current Board of Directors, our donors and our caring staff have worked especially hard to help endure the uncertainties of a future move and the extra work it will entail. I thank them profusely.

Looking forward,

Bryan Bashin's signature

Bryan Bashin, CEO

If you would like to join the Capital Campaign by making a pledge toward the LightHouse Center of Excellence we’d love to talk with you. We offer considerable naming opportunities, multi-year tax benefits and the sense of building something compassionate and enduring for the next century. Please contact our Development Director, Jennifer Sachs, at 415.694.7333 or email her at jsachs@LightHouse-sf.org. Or donate by clicking on the button below.

For press inquiries, please contact press@lighthouse-sf.org.

LightHouse Board and Staff, some with white canes or dog guides, pose with hardhats and hammers inside the new LightHouse.