Blind Architect

By: John Blackstone Email
By: John Blackstone Email

The sounds of everyday life are nothing more than background noise to most people. For Chris Downey, they're clues, markers to help him figure out where he is, where he's going.

"As I move around I can hear how the space changes, as I get further up I can hear the kitchenette."

Chris' world has been in total darkness for three years. He thought he was just getting older, having trouble focusing.

"Just playing baseball with my son I couldn't see the ball anymore coming at me," says Chris Downey, the blind Architect.

Doctors found a tumor on his optic nerve. They successfully removed it...But in the process he lost his sight.

And his work depended on sight. Chris is an architect. But he couldn't imagine giving that up.

"Well, what else would i do! I had always joked - the only other thing i wanted to do was be a sightseeing tour guide... That seemed to be out of the realm of possibility right now!"

He was determined to continue to be an architect: A blind architect.

New tools include embossed building plans - a kind of braille blueprint - and wax sticks that he bends and manipulates to "sketch".

"I really have a greater sense of what it's like to be in the space reading a drawing this way than i did sighted. (John) Because your fingers are actually going through that hall? Right, yes.

" we couldn't tell from the plans but Chris could tell - how were people going to find the foot of the stair?" asks Eric Meub from Smithgroup

His unique point of view has made him an asset to projects being designed specifically for the blind, like the new rehab center at the Palo Alto VA facility.

In architectural terms was there a time in looking at the plans that you said how can the blind guy see things i can't? That's absolutely right.

As the only blind architect in the US, Chris has become a busy consultant. Among the projects he's contributing to is a new eye center at duke university.

Navigating around his new life has its challenges. But his wife Rosa says he's never turns down a challenge.

" When he's given a problem he likes to solve the problem. And there's something in there he's always had," says Rosa Downey, Chris' wife.


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