Creating A New Vision At Vocational Rehabilitation Center

Anne Dinardo
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The training and residential wings are designed with contrasting features to help residents undertsand and navigate the buuilding : The public half is more resonant with brighter lighting and colors

Visions Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a non-profit agency founded in 1926 to promote the independence of people of all ages that are legally or totally blind, expanded its services last year to open the first residential rehabilitation center for the blind in New York state.

Located at the 37-acre Center on Blindness camp in New Hempstead, N.Y., the new Vocational Rehabilitation Center allows newly blind (called “trainees”) to live in a sequestered environment for a few months where, with the support of specialized staff and other adults with vision loss, they’re able to focus on adjusting to blindness and learn independent living and job skills.

The 17,000-square-foot facility, which opened in August 2017, is designed to blend in with the existing property while also creating a campus setting for the organization’s services.

“The new building is a big step up for the camp,” says Timothy Eckersley, senior associate at Gertler & Wente Architects LLP in New York and designer on the project. “While the older buildings have a well-worn charm, the Vocational Rehabilitation Center creates an updated ambience and, because it is open year-round, a new energy for the Center on Blindness camp.”

Extensive site improvements were also part of the project, Eckersley says, including a new entrance and signage and upgraded site circulation.

Inside, the training and residential services are divided into separate wings, which are arranged in a “T” shape, with the training wing housing a computer center, classrooms, gym, therapy room, and training kitchen, as well as a commercial kitchen and offices. The residential wing contains 30 residential and two staff bedrooms and two lounges.

The center’s exterior massing and materials resemble a traditional barn-like structure, but with modern accents, including mahogany-colored wood-veneer panels and oversized storefront glazing for the training wing. Window frames on the bedroom wing are magenta colored and the roofing is a light green standing-seam metal, all of which pick up on similar characteristics of the existing camp buildings.

Inside, architectural details were chosen to provide a safe and secure environment, while also balancing the need to provide a training site and not make the building “over-adapted,” Eckersley says. For example, stairs are part of the building to help with “real world” navigation, but are clearly delineated with black nosings and medium-toned treads.

All the spaces are designed to be perceived through the senses, with the intention to help the trainees generate a mental map of a sequence of spaces within the building. “Blind people need to develop all their senses to compensate for the loss of sight,” he says.

For example, the walls at the main entrance are differentiated with sculpted panels marking changes in pathway directions. The center point of the building is marked by a rough-hewn post as a tactile marker, which was fashioned from the limb of an oak tree that was felled during construction.

Additionally, the residential wing has a “softer” feel than the training wing with smaller rooms, the use of sound absorbing materials such as carpet, warmer lighting, and a muted color scheme, which contrasts with the primary-color accents in the training wing.

Ninety five percent of the trainees are visually impaired rather than completely blind, so designers had to carefully control the visual environment, as well. For example, it’s important to minimize glare due to a reduced filtering ability of the visually impaired, so designers added eaves and porches on the exterior and venetian blinds and drapery inside.

Color contrast between important elements in the rooms is also essential, including floor surfaces in contrasting tones with wall surfaces and door handles in contrast to the doors. Because doors are used for navigation, doors and frames also contrast the wall plane.

“While training is the main aim, it was also important to create a building in which the clients, who are facing a terrible crisis in their lives, feel comfortable participating in group activities, while also having a degree of privacy,” Eckersley says.

Creating A New Vision At Vocational Rehabilitation Center