July 11, 2016 2:43 pm
Updated: July 11, 2016 8:13 pm

Blind architect involved in 35-storey CNIB building in Edmonton

WATCH ABOVE: Another tall tower proposal is in the planning stages for Edmonton, but this one features no opposition. The building itself promises to serve a very important need. Vinesh Pratap explains.

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Edmonton city council has unanimously approved a new development uniquely designed for those who are blind and visually impaired in Edmonton’s Oliver neighbourhood.

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind plans to replace its office on 120 Street and Jasper Avenue with a new 35-storey building. The mixed-use tower will see commercial and retail space, including CNIB offices, along with apartments for the blind and visually impaired.

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“This knocks it out of the park,” Mayor Don Iveson said of the building’s design. “And yes, it’s a tall building but if people will step forward and provide this kind of beauty and these kinds of contributions – onsite or offsite or both – then that’s what I’m looking for.”

READ MORE: Blueprint for beauty: Are Edmonton buildings being designed to dazzle?

The CNIB is working with American architect Chris Downey who, after 20 years as an architect, unexpectedly lost his sight eight years ago while undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumour.

From textured walkways and Braille on doors, to audio prompts in the elevators and wayfinding mechanisms in the hallways, the entire building will be specially designed to accommodate the blind and visually impaired.

“The entry is on the sidewalk, on the street and a big challenge is, how do you find the front door when you can’t see the sign to tell you where it is?” Downey used as an example.

“Other things you can do is, work with canopies and recesses as we have for the building so it actually sounds different,” he continued. “The sound – as it bounces off the tapping from the tip of your cane, hits the building and comes back to your ear – it will give you a good indication of, that’s where a door might be.”

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind hopes to replace its office on 120 Street and Jasper Avenue with a new 35-storey building.

John Mulka, regional vice president of the CNIB in B.C., Alberta and northern Canada, said he was blown away by Downey’s work.

“I think this is going to be a Hallmark facility. It’s going to be state of the art and it’s going to be something a lot of Canadians are going to be envious of and it’s great that it’s right here in Edmonton.”

READ MORE: Edmonton councillors approve controversial high-rise tower despite chief planner’s concerns

After losing his sight, Downey was forced to change the way he works. While he may not be able to physically see the projects he’s working on, Downey said he’s adapted.

“I started to realize that sight is really just part of the typical skill set, the typical tools you use to do the work. It doesn’t affect how you think, it doesn’t affect your creative process. All that is intact,” he said.

“It’s really reading drawings through touch, which works quite well and takes a bit more time, but it has some advantages and some things I really like about it.”

With much of his work now centred on the blind and visually impaired, Downey said he was excited to work on the Edmonton proposal and believes more designs need to consider those with disabilities.

“The idea that we’re all sort of quote ‘normal’ and all walk around with two legs and have typical standard procedures and see and have all sensory capabilities, that’s a fallacy,” he said.

“This is not a typical concept and I think it’s a beautiful, wonderful concept that really starts expanding how we think about our buildings and how they’re designed to really be there for the society that will use it.”

The zoning for the area needed approval from Edmonton city council, which was granted Monday afternoon.

© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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