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Bob Lamkin
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Bob Lamkin

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"You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."

- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

I feel the need to begin with a confession. I may not be the most qualified to write this article. I cannot claim any expertise in this topic nor can I claim any extensive experience. However, I have an acute awareness of my own need and the assumption that I am probably not alone. Actually, that is the reason I felt that I should write it.

The year 2016 was the 25th anniversary of the enactment of the initial Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title 3 requirements and also the 25th anniversary of the implementation of the Fair Housing Act. The year 1991 was a big year for accessibility advocates and it also happened to be the year that I helped to start an architectural firm. The ADA and the Fair Housing Guidelines have been there since the beginning for my partners and me.

I wish I could say that I have always been glad for the added guidance and accountability, but that wouldn't be the whole truth. Our firm—Hensley Lamkin Rachel—does residential work all over the country, so our projects are subject to the ADA, the ANSI Standards, model building codes, Fair Housing codes, and sometimes state or local accessibility codes. I have often seen these as layers upon layers of regulations that seem like they exist only to bring me grief. I know that is the wrong attitude. More importantly, I realize now that it reveals a lack of an important design skill: empathy.

That is why I feel compelled to celebrate the initiatives that some of my colleagues have started. By now, most of us should be aware of the AIA Dallas Codes & Standards Committee’s ADA Day. For a number of years, local architects and interns have spent a day seeking to experience what it is like to be confined to a wheelchair and go about their daily activities. Others have attempted a day as a deaf person. Others chose to see what it would be like to live as a blind person.

Architect Bob Borson, FAIA participates in the AIA Dallas Codes & Standards Committee's Wheelchair for a Day program. Credit: Nick Thorn, AIA

All who have been brave enough to participate in the experience have found it enlightening. Architect Bob Borson, FAIA, founder of the popular blog “Life of an Architect,” gave the wheelchair a spin last year and tried deafness this year. In his blog, Bob wrote, "I’d like to think that these exercises make me a better architect, but even if they don’t, I am fairly confident that they make me a better person."

Credit: Nick Thorn, AIA

At Corgan, members of the firm have taken turns wearing the GERT suit (short for “gerontology”) that simulates an "additional 40 years of age," according to a story that appeared on the firm's website. The suit, which includes elements that inhibit vision, hearing, and mobility, seeks to "elevate awareness" of the challenges faced by an aging population.

Credit: Corgan

Elizabeth Gruett from Corgan's interior design studio said, "The most interesting and perplexing experience was the mental component, which I wasn’t necessarily expecting … how wearing the suit and not being able to see well or move quickly, how that affected me and my self-consciousness or anxiety about how other people perceive me.” 

Credit: Corgan

A third example is the experience created by David Dillard, FAIA for members of his firm, D2 Architecture. He sends his staff on "sleep overs" at senior housing facilities so they can experience life in a senior housing community from the inside. They keep a journal during their visits with an eye toward application of what they learn. Dillard said this of the experience: "The biggest benefit is when I send a 27-year-old out [who] comes back with a heart 10 times as big. They meet people and understand their plights."

It strikes me that these exercises have been undertaken in the name of research, but at their core they are about fostering empathy. In Psychology Today, Douglas LaBier, Ph.D. wrote: "Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase pro-social (helping) behaviors." … "Empathy is different from sympathy. Sympathy reflects understanding another person's situation, but viewed through your own lens. That is, it's based on your version of what the other person is dealing with … In contrast, empathy is what you feel only when you can step outside of yourself and enter the internal world of the other person. There, without abandoning or losing your own perspective, you can experience the other's emotions, conflicts, or aspirations from within the vantage point of that person's world."

Is it a stretch to consider empathy as a part of our design skills set? I don't think so. In my case, as part of a firm that specializes in multi-family residential design, I have to be aware of the preferences and desires of the millennial generation. The developers that we serve are competing for their rent dollars and so they are deeply interested in what drives millennials and how a project's program and design should respond. We don't actually speak of empathy, but the clients and design teams that more fully understand what this generation is seeking from life will be more successful. It is the ability to consider their goals with empathy that will bring greater clarity to our understanding.

In a TedX talk titled “How Empathy Fuels the Creative Process” at Wellesley College, Seung Chan Lim described a link between creativity and empathy. He talked about how the ways that we are tied up in our own model of the world prevent us from creating new meaning and value from our work. He suggests that empathy allows us to see things from a new point of view and thus see new creative opportunities.

He goes on to point out that we like to think of ourselves as problem-solvers but the real problem is that we don't see ourselves as part of the problem. Too often we approach a problem thinking we already know the answer, but we don't realize the influence of our own inherent preconceptions and are unaware of our own prejudice. He said, "The process it takes to empathize with another person mirrors the creative process."

Is empathy a skill that can be developed? The research exercises described previously would indicate that empathy can be learned. Note that these exercises have a few common traits. First, they are an attempt to engage. To walk in another's shoes, you have to put their shoes on. It is an action and not just a thought experiment. We need to get outside of our comfort zones and engage with people—not problems. Second, they show that we have to be humble enough to admit that we need to learn. There is a need for an honest exchange—not only with others, but also with ourselves. Third, these exercises show that we have to seek the other person's perspective. We have to focus and listen to others to find new insight. We need to hear, not what we expect to hear, but what is truly being revealed.

It is interesting that the responses of those who took part seem to indicate that the results were unexpected. The greatest impact was often less about the discovery of specific design improvements, but more about the impact of the empathic experience and a greater awareness of the user's challenge and experience.

We also have to recognize that our ability to put ourselves in another's shoes is limited. These types of simulations, while certainly excellent in their process and wonderful in their motivation, nevertheless can only go so far toward painting an accurate picture. For instance, users with real disabilities will usually adapt to their situation. We have to recognize that an experience in a single day or even over a number of days doesn't give us a real opportunity to develop coping skills. We won't learn to tie our shoes or brush our teeth with one hand that quickly.

We also have to be careful not to stereotype those with disabilities. Disabilities occur in a wide range of variation. If we are fortunate enough to become elderly, we will most likely experience a steady decline and go through a number of stages of challenge.

And finally, we must keep in mind that we can abandon these experiments, something that real users with real challenges cannot do. What may be a small annoyance when encountered for a few times in a single day might become a serious concern when it is faced a couple of times every day.

It's also important to broaden our thinking. We shouldn't limit the discussion of empathy and its implications for design only to issues of disability or aging. Those are just the areas where we're seeing progress and where the implications are obvious. Other considerations are:

  • What would a more empathic approach to design have to say about aspects of our designed environments that are experienced differently due to issues of gender, race, or culture?
  • Would these types of design simulations be a useful tool to better appreciate those differences?
  • How does our designed environment respond more appropriately in a world that seems to have difficulty celebrating our diversity?
  • Is it too broad to think about how our built environment should make accommodations, at least in our public spaces, for people whose life experience are very different from ours?
  • How should a facility for the homeless address a person who knows nothing but the streets?
  • Can a university facility better address the multi-cultural student body of the 21st century?
  • How should a refugee camp be planned? Can architects, through the practice of empathy in design, engage in the moral conversation and speak more powerfully to equity for all?

At the end of the day, the real problem isn't about barriers like doors that are too heavy to open or thresholds that are too high to easily roll over; all of those things are relatively easy to fix. The real barriers are the unseen barriers that separate us and keep us from understanding one another. The real barriers are barriers of the heart. We suffer from an empathy deficit.


Bob Lamkin, AIA is a principal with Hensley Lamkin Rachel Inc. Architects.