2019 New Mobility Person of the Year: Karen Braitmayer

2019 New Mobility Person of the Year: Karen Braitmayer

Karen Braitmayer

Gazing down at architect Karen Braitmayer from her front room wall is an outline of the Hindu God Ganesh, remover of obstacles. Photo by © Moris Moreno.

Karen Braitmayer is an authorized architect, a wheelchair person with osteogenesis imperfecta and the founding father of the Seattle-based accessibility consulting agency Studio Pacifica. She is well-known throughout the world of Seattle structure, and her purchasers – among the largest firms on the earth – embody Amazon, Nike, Starbucks and Microsoft. Additionally, she consults with different award-winning architects as they full initiatives that can form the character of her metropolis for many years to return.

In addition to her day job, she’s additionally concerned nationally with public coverage and training. President Obama appointed her to the U.S. Access Board, which helps outline the nation’s accessibility requirements, and she or he travels the nation to average panels and educate structure professionals on inclusive design.

In recognition of her impression and accomplishments, in 2019, the American Institute of Architects awarded her its Whitney M. Young Award for Social Responsibility. Tom Kundig, probably the most revered architects within the nation, whose agency labored with Braitmayer to renovate Seattle’s iconic Space Needle, wrote a letter supporting her nomination for the prize. It was emphatic and detailed, and it contained a line that sums up the emotions of most everybody who has had an opportunity to work with Braitmayer: “Karen represents the very best that our area can provide.”

We agree. There’s no hyperbole in saying that Braitmayer has as a lot optimistic impression on making our constructed atmosphere extra accessible and inclusive as anybody working within the United States in the present day. We are proud to call Braitmayer the 2019 NEW MOBILITY Person of the Year.

Rising from the downtown hills that overlook the island-packed waters of the Puget Sound, two very completely different monuments straddle Seattle’s fifth Avenue. On one facet is the outdated federal courthouse. Built in 1940, it’s an imposing monolith of artwork deco concrete, set excessive atop a cascade of stairs, with its solely accessible entrance hidden across the again of the constructing.

On the opposite facet of fifth Avenue is Seattle’s flagship Central Library, in-built 2004 and deemed “crucial new library to be in-built a technology, and probably the most exhilarating” by The New Yorker. The constructing is a dizzying stack of overhanging trapezoids forged in glass and latticed metal that extends over the sidewalk to create a sheltered hall alongside the sting of the sidewalk. You can cross by means of it with out a lot as a threshold. In reality, there isn’t a single stair alongside any of the street-side entrances to the constructing.

Accessing the constructing, it’s clear that occasions have modified. But as you go about utilizing the house, issues get extra difficult. One of the central options of the constructing is the “e book spiral,” a four-story house that homes the library’s major assortment and wraps round itself in a steady ramp.

The Dutch structure agency that designed the library noticed the spiral as an progressive method to accommodate the ever-changing nature of a library’s catalog with out the synthetic breaks brought on by separate flooring. But Karen Braitmayer, together with different neighborhood members, seen a evident accessibility subject within the public overview portion of the design course of.

Originally, the e book stacks have been going to be set into a continuing slope, forcing customers to navigate an never-ending cross slope as they tried to seek out their e book. The last design saved the descending spiral however set every row of books on a degree shelf. “You are working on a continuing collection of small, sloped areas, with a degree house in between,” Braitmayer says. “It is technically compliant, however I query whether or not it was a extremely good and helpful resolution.”

The experiences of each monuments converse to structure’s energy to exclude or embody, to make us a welcome a part of town or to relegate us to the margins. It’s straightforward to see how far we’ve come up to now 80 years, however when you get within the door, there can nonetheless be a protracted method to go.

Braitmayer shares breakfast with her husband, David Erskine, and their daughter, Anita. Note how well this room accommodates the family, from table height to the space between appliances and cabinets to how the kitchen flows into the living room behind it.

Braitmayer shares breakfast together with her husband, David Erskine, and their daughter, Anita. Note how properly this room accommodates the household, from desk top to the house between home equipment and cupboards to how the kitchen flows into the lounge behind it. Photo by © Moris Moreno.


Braitmayer grew up in Darien, Connecticut, a spot she describes as “a really well-to-do, suburban New York City neighborhood.” Her father was a enterprise govt and her mom a stay-at-home mother. Braitmayer was the oldest, and her dad and mom didn’t even know she had a incapacity till she was recognized across the age of 6. They seen that their daughter was small and that she did some clumsy issues and broke bones, however they have been first-time dad and mom and didn’t have a lot to match her to. “It wasn’t till my sister got here alongside that they even thought, ‘she’s actually small.’”

When she was lastly recognized with osteogenesis imperfecta, the physician informed her dad and mom that issues have been going to be completely different, and tougher. A lifetime later, Braitmayer nonetheless chuckles at her dad and mom’ response, which was typical of their perspective towards her incapacity: “Well, I don’t know, she appears superb to me.”

In 1960s pre-ADA America, when Braitmayer started to make use of a wheelchair in elementary college, public house accessibility didn’t actually exist. “There have been no curb cuts, no accessible parking areas, nowhere to sit down within the movie show. I used to be a hearth hazard for years,” she jokes. But nonetheless, she describes her childhood as a typical one. “I used to be mainstreamed, so I went to a neighborhood college, identical one my brother and sister went to.” Around residence, Braitmayer and her siblings have been held to the identical set of excessive expectations — they have been anticipated to do chores, do properly at school, and go to varsity. “In my household, they anticipated that I might have the ability to do no matter I needed to do, with some apparent limitations, like strolling up stairs,” she says.

Braitmayer pores over plans with an associate at her business, Studio Pacifica.

Braitmayer pores over plans with an affiliate at her enterprise, Studio Pacifica. Photo by © Moris Moreno.

When folks tried to push her away from a chance due to her incapacity, she merely refused to simply accept the premise of the rejection. She remembers making use of for a job in highschool at a present store with stairs on the entrance. The supervisor known as her and informed her he was sorry, however they couldn’t provide her the job as a result of they didn’t have an accessible entrance. Braitmayer responded that her household might assist her up the steps. Well, the supervisor stated, he didn’t suppose their rest room was accessible both. “Oh, I can use absolutely anything,” she responded. “I’ll come have a look and allow you to know if it’ll work.” Braitmayer figures they actually didn’t wish to provide her the job, however each time they supplied a disability-based excuse, she supplied an answer.

She bought the job. Her mother needed to pull her up the steps into the constructing for each shift, and the lavatory was horrible, however Braitmayer made it work. “If he had stated, ‘We don’t have a job for you,’ I may need accepted it. … But I wasn’t going to allow them to say no as a result of I used to be in a wheelchair.”

Braitmayer began undergrad at Houston’s Rice University in 1977, and like many younger folks, she didn’t actually know what she needed to do together with her life. She wound up with a level in behavioral sciences and bought a job in sociological analysis. She lasted three months earlier than deciding that analysis was positively not the profession for her.

At the suggestion of her father, she took an inherent ability take a look at. It listed drugs, engineering and structure because the careers most matched to her pursuits and skills. Medicine and engineering have been non-starters, however structure was intriguing. “As a child, I did plenty of crafts. I used plenty of paper and glue and cardboard and cloth. I favored to make stuff,” she says. “Architecture is making stuff for a dwelling.”

Upon enrolling in an structure grasp’s program on the University of Houston, Braitmayer knew instantly that she’d made the suitable resolution, even when her classmates needed to customized construct a workspace that was low sufficient for her to make use of. “The first few weeks of design studio, I used to be hooked. This was the good factor. I bought to play with pens and paper, and it was precisely what I love to do,” she says. “I’ve by no means turned again. I like it.”

Shifting Perspective

After graduating together with her grasp’s diploma in structure, Braitmayer had little need to place accessibility on the middle of her profession. In 1985, she bought an internship at Ray Bailey, a big structure agency primarily based in Houston, doing mainstream structure in a state that had few constructing codes. But the work and the tradition weren’t a very good match for her, and when financial pressures precipitated the underside to drop out of the Houston constructing market, she packed up and moved cross-country once more, this time to Seattle.

2019 New Mobility Person of the Year: Karen Braitmayer 1

This hallway is designed to be a collection of gently-sloped ramps interspersed with degree platforms.

In Seattle, a revered native architect advised that she go into “handicap” structure. “I used to be nearly insulted,” she says. She didn’t have something in opposition to making buildings accessible, only a suspicion that this man solely noticed her incapacity, not her expertise as an architect.

After touchdown at a mainstream Seattle structure agency, nevertheless, Braitmayer discovered that she couldn’t assist however discover when colleagues have been drafting needlessly inaccessible options into their plans. “You don’t wish to do this!” she’d suppose, and couldn’t assist however provide recommendation, even when it was unsolicited. “I saved sticking my nostril in the place it in all probability didn’t belong,” she says.

At the identical time, Braitmayer started hanging out with different folks with disabilities — she joined an adaptive crusing membership and made disabled buddies. The expertise began to alter her perspective and confirmed her that her struggles with an inaccessible atmosphere weren’t hers alone. She met a graphic designer named Barbara Allan who was concerned with Easter Seals and had helped develop an illustrated information for accessibility ideas. “She met me and went, ‘ooh, architect and a wheelchair person!” says Braitmayer. “So she type of took me beneath her wing.”

Allan helped get Braitmayer a seat on the Washington State Building Code Council representing folks with disabilities. That was the primary expertise that actually gave her a mindset that she had a task to play within the broader motion for entry. “It was in all probability a 10-year technique of shifting my mindset from ‘What am I going to do?’ to “What can I assist with?’” she says. “A variety of that, I believe, is a rising up course of.”

That shift helped her notice that as each an architect and a wheelchair person, she had a novel perspective. In 1994, she left her job to open Studio Pacifica, and transitioned from working as a generalist architect to a advisor. In her new position she suggested different architects on the nuts and bolts of accessibility code, how design choices have an effect on folks with various mobility wants, the place issues could come up and potential options that account for the wants of all customers. “I’ve been the one making an attempt to construct this factor on finances and on time for a shopper. So I perceive their pressures. And I additionally know that I wish to get within the door, and I would like my household to have the ability to get within the door, so I’m looking for a method to make these two issues come collectively,” she says.

Thinking Beyond Code

An enormous a part of Braitmayer’s success comes from her perspective and inventive skills. “She comes at it as knowledgeable and as a neighborhood member. She doesn’t come at it as a vigilante. There’s nothing overreaching about her method in any respect,” says Carol Sundstrom, a residential architect who has been a buddy and colleague of Braitmayer’s for many years. “She comes at it with a really deep understanding of what you’re being requested to do within the code, and likewise, why did that even find yourself within the code?”

For Braitmayer, accessibility code isn’t only a prescription to be utilized, it’s a framework inside which good design can flourish. Architects all the time work round constraints — finances, local weather circumstances, web site topography, constructing supplies, seismic necessities or any variety of others — and people constraints are sometimes the impetus for artistic inspiration. Accessibility doesn’t need to be a burden, “I consider it as an additional place to shine, an additional place to actually make a mission particular,” says Sundstrom.

Within the sphere of structure, although, accessibility isn’t typically considered in these phrases. In structure college, it’s taught alongside plumbing and electrical codes. Glanced over is a form approach of placing it. Accessibility is usually interpreted as a set of options, like seize bars and lowered urinals, which might be plunked onto a design on the finish of the method. Code units a uniform commonplace, a baseline of entry necessities, however good design is about anticipating how the constructed atmosphere influences the experiences of the folks utilizing it and making that atmosphere work for the broadest vary of individuals as attainable.

“So many occasions, disability-centered design simply feels so sterile and so purposeful,” says Rebecca Cokley, who served within the Obama administration and was a part of the group that appointed Braitmayer to the Access Board. What Braitmayer brings to accessible design is “a distinct form of artistic aptitude that I really feel like is lacking,” Cokley says.

Braitmayer zips along the ramp outside of Seattle’s Amazon Spheres. Her firm was consulted to help make the Spheres and the area surrounding them as accessible as possible.

Braitmayer zips alongside the ramp exterior of Seattle’s Amazon Spheres. Her agency was consulted to assist make the Spheres and the world surrounding them as accessible as attainable. Photo by © Moris Moreno.

Architecture’s Other Diversity Problem

The greatest drawback with Karen Braitmayer is that there’s solely considered one of her. Just because the observe of structure has lengthy excluded these with bodily disabilities from the constructed atmosphere, so too has the career excluded folks with disabilities from its ranks. These phenomena will not be unrelated. Braitmayer, an authorized architect and a lady who makes use of a wheelchair, is a little bit of a unicorn.

In June 2019, when Braitmayer rolled onto the stage on the American Institute of Architects’ nationwide convention in Las Vegas to simply accept the Whitney M. Young Award, she was the primary architect within the 40-plus-year historical past of the prize whose work centered on accessibility. She was additionally solely the fourth lady to obtain the award.

The career has a long-documented and ongoing drawback with range: as of 2017, solely 19% of licensed architects have been ladies, and in 2018, solely 15% of newly licensed architects recognized as non-white or Latino. As dangerous as these numbers could look, the statistics for folks with disabilities don’t even exist. The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards produces an annual “By the Numbers” report that appears on the trade’s demographics, but it surely doesn’t embody incapacity alongside its gender and ethnic knowledge.

It’s each surprising and baffling to Braitmayer that there are folks throughout the area, even these serious about range and inclusion, who don’t make the connection that folks with disabilities ought to be handled simply as another underrepresented group till they occur to listen to her converse on the difficulty. “I had no thought!” one earnest younger lady exclaimed after listening to Braitmayer discuss entry and incapacity as a part of a range panel.

For many years, the AIA has been making an attempt to chip away at its range drawback by providing scholarships to members of underrepresented teams, in addition to internet hosting occasions and packages that attain out to the identical communities. These efforts have had an impression, with gender and POC disparities slowly bettering, however till just lately, the AIA didn’t embody incapacity in any of those range efforts.

Last July, the identical month that she accepted the Whitney M. Young award, Braitmayer known as out the gatekeepers of the career in an article for Architect Magazine: “It’s time we title the true roadblock for college students with disabilities contemplating structure as a profession: tutorial {and professional} stereotyping and discrimination, and omission from range packages within the trade.”

Braitmayer adopted by calling for a tradition shift in structure to make disabled practitioners extra welcomed into the trade. At the identical time, she has been pushing for the AIA, architectural organizations and faculties so as to add incapacity to their range packages and as a qualifying criterion for range scholarships. She does all this whereas additionally touring the nation to coach design professionals about inclusion and entry.

At lengthy final, these efforts are gaining institutional backing. In October, AIA revealed an article that it promoted on the entrance web page of its web site calling for a tradition change to middle entry and inclusion from the very begin of the design course of. That got here simply months after the award ceremony for the Whitney prize, which served as direct acknowledgement from the AIA that structure’s a lot wanted diversification has to incorporate incapacity. “Her choice wasn’t an accident,” says Katie Wilson, who served because the jury chair for this yr’s award.

Braitmayer’s thoughtful approach to accessibility allows wheelchair users to mingle with nondisabled patrons at the Deep Dive Bar, located in the Amazon Spheres.

Braitmayer’s considerate method to accessibility permits wheelchair customers to mingle with nondisabled patrons on the Deep Dive Bar, positioned within the Amazon Spheres.

Change Via Representation

To give folks with completely different mobility wants an equal expertise in an area, you’ve got to have the ability to anticipate how completely different options will have an effect on completely different folks. If the ADA says you must have one decrease counter at a gymnasium’s check-in desk, are hurried workers going to supply to sign off of their pc and onto a distinct one for a single buyer? Is there any cause that you just couldn’t rearrange the work space and decrease your entire counter so {that a} wheelchair person doesn’t have an inner battle about whether or not or to not converse up each time they get to the gymnasium and would actually choose to only exercise as an alternative of getting a dialog about entry? You most certainly wouldn’t take into consideration any of this except you’ve had expertise with being the brief individual at a too-tall check-in counter or know somebody who has.

Wheelchair customers and folks with different disabilities make up a big minority of society however stay manifestly absent from many workplaces. Involving disabled professionals and neighborhood members within the design course of is a crucial element of extra inclusive design, however higher integrating disabled workers all through all ranges of employment would assist drive a extra inclusive tradition as properly. When your workers, colleagues and executives have disabilities, you may’t assist however broaden your perspective and internalize among the challenges that folks with various mobility wants encounter every day. “Designers design for what they know,” says Braitmayer.

Three of the 5 accessibility consultants at Studio Pacifica have a bodily incapacity. There are two wheelchair customers and two workers with listening to loss (Braitmayer matches in each classes), and the agency often collaborates with an accessibility specialist with low imaginative and prescient/blindness. The knowledge to know what the numbers appear to be all through the structure trade as a complete remains to be missing, but it surely’s secure to say that disabled practitioners are grossly underrepresented. Braitmayer, for one, doesn’t suppose that architects usually have any explicit resistance towards designing extra inclusive areas. She simply thinks they’re moderately unaware of the methods during which options they could view as trivial can have an effect on folks with disabilities. “I simply don’t suppose they perceive that placing a seize bar within the mistaken place, or making a door too heavy, can cease somebody of their tracks,” Braitmayer says. “Simple adjustments would possibly make it attainable for folks to really feel assured sufficient that they may proceed with their training, or get a job, or give again to their communities … no matter it’s they wish to do.”

Sundstrom, who doesn’t have a incapacity, started working with the incapacity neighborhood whereas working alongside Braitmayer in a shared workplace house. She says that she finds the extra layer of drawback fixing vital in inclusive design to be rewarding each personally and creatively. The factor about inclusive design, is that in case you do it proper, it isn’t nearly accommodating disabilities, it really works higher for everybody.

She’ll typically go to a mall in Auburn, a suburb of Seattle, and watch how folks use the house. “They’ve blended stairs and ramps all through the mall, and I discover it fascinating how few folks use the steps. In that specific design, the ramps are within the center, not caught off to the facet the place you must go discover them, so everyone simply makes use of the ramps. When it’s designed properly, and it’s design-integrated, then all of us profit — we don’t even give it some thought.”

Architects nonetheless love stairs — they’re a characteristic that may make buildings look actually cool. But in case you work and stay alongside folks with out good mobility, it’s fairly straightforward to see that when a ramp is finished proper, no one misses the steps.

A Deep Dive Into Good Design

In2019 New Mobility Person of the Year: Karen Braitmayer 2 the basement beneath the Spheres — Amazon’s 90-foot-high conservatories of hexagonal glass that home 40,000 vegetation, along with serving as an worker workspace and lounge — sits a small bar known as the Deep Dive. It’s a moody place of dim lights, darkish curving wooden and overstuffed furnishings. Amazon introduced Braitmayer on early within the design course of, and normally when that’s the case, offering entry is just not a difficulty, as a result of you’ve got management of all the design components.

But Deep Dive was a leftover house within the basement of a constructing that the architects have been tasked with turning right into a public bar. In phrases of areas, “it was the worst of the worst,” says Braitmayer. There was a street-level entrance door, a decrease flooring slab that must function the bar’s major seating space and an intermediate degree flooring slab in the back of the house. Working with Braitmayer, the architects designed a chic resolution: a ramp that descends from the door, wraps round to entry the principle degree after which ascends to the upper rear flooring in a single, sweeping curve. The bar high is a consistent-height slab of wooden that bridges each ranges. At the raised rear finish, there’s sufficient house for 2 wheelchair customers, otherwise you and a date, to sit down with the bar high simply over your knees, eye-level with the bartender and the patrons on the principle degree.

Good design doesn’t need to be grand, elevated, and even daring. But it does need to be considerate. Good design is accessible, Braitmayer likes to say. Good design permits you to within the door and makes you are feeling welcome to sit down down for a drink.

An Architect at Home

In 1996, Karen Braitmayer and her husband, David Erskine, purchased a mid-century fashion ranch residence within the hills of Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood. The residence was already a single degree, so it didn’t take rather more than a ramp by means of the storage to make it work. They added one other member of the family, and one other wheelchair person, in 2000, after they adopted their daughter, Anita.

The household made the house work, however there have been all the time annoyances — oddly sized and out of proportion areas, and a kitchen that was almost inconceivable for 2 wheelchair customers to occupy concurrently. Braitmayer partnered with Carol Sundstrom to rework the home. The two architects determined to drill deep into how the varied family members would use completely different components of the home and the right way to make every day life simpler for everybody. “We took it as a chance for her residence to be a laboratory of concepts that actually take issues a step additional when it comes to ease and luxury,” says Sundstrom.

The transformed kitchen includes a lengthy island of two completely different heights. The lowest part is open beneath with house for 2 wheelchairs to roll beneath. It’s straight throughout from the fridge in order that meals might be transferred to the island the place it’s best for Braitmayer and her daughter to prep meals. The sink was put in with faucet and controls on the facet and an open backside in order that Braitmayer might take advantage of her restricted attain. The pièce de résistance, for Braitmayer at the least, is a cupboard that pops open and divulges a shelf with a Kitchen Aid mixer that may simply be pulled out over a lap. Braitmayer loves baking cookies, and over a decade after the transform was accomplished, this characteristic nonetheless makes her giddy. There’s a grasp rest room with an open roll-in bathe that works properly for Braitmayer and Erskine, and one other with a bath and bench works properly for Anita, who has a distinct degree of perform than her mom.

The impact of this degree of customization and considerate planning is a house that resembles a well-fitted wheelchair: optimized for his or her our bodies and their lives. “One of the issues Karen and I implore is: Let your own home be the place issues are straightforward,” Sundstrom informed the Seattle Times. “There are sufficient obstacles on the market. Save your power for while you exit.”

Renovating an Icon

Seattle’s Space Needle is among the most iconic buildings within the nation. Braitmayer consulted on the just lately accomplished $100 million renovation of the 1962 constructing. One of the largest accessibility points was offering wheelchair entry to the outer commentary deck on the high of the tower. There was elevator entry to the highest degree, however an unreliable platform elevate made stairs the one sensible method to get to the out of doors ring that supplied probably the most expansive views of town. “In all of the years I went, it was by no means purposeful,” says Braitmayer.

Experiencing the Space Needle is all in regards to the views, and a significant a part of the renovation was eradicating as many obstructions to these views as attainable. Glass flooring have been put in on the restaurant degree, and large panes of glass that lean out precariously over the void have been put in on the commentary deck to exchange ugly safety cages. The new really feel could be stripped again and modern, and commonplace entry lifts merely wouldn’t do. “They have been on the lookout for one thing that blended in with the long-lasting structure.”

On a visit to London, Braitmayer and her daughter had seen a wheelchair elevate that operates a bit like a magic trick: one minute they’re a set of stairs, the subsequent minute it transforms right into a platform elevate with guardrails — all with the push of a button.

The mission of the renovation was to let guests see greater than they ever had earlier than. Thanks to Braitmayer’s assist, wheelchair customers can now lean out over the sting and let their stomachs drop alongside everybody else.

The “Accessibility is Beautiful” YouTube miniseries, hosted by HGTV’s John Gidding, featured excellent residences designed to be each breathtaking and purposeful. Braitmayer’s residence was showcased, together with the houses of Randy Earle and Leslie Haynes, and the completely beautiful Casa Cabo Pulmo, owned by Pat Wright and Deb Zeyen, that was featured within the collection finale. Click right here to view a photograph essay about Casa Cabo Pulmo.

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