It’s all about finding the words: opening doors for deaf architects

Chris Laing at the Serpentine Pavilion_c_Cory Labrosse  (5)

The absence of agreed signs for architectural terms is a major barrier for deaf people seeking to enter the profession. Chris Laing tells Elizabeth Hopkirk how he plans to change that

Chris Laing at the Serpentine Pavilion_c_Cory Labrosse  (5)

Source: Cory Labrosse

Chris Laing at the Serpentine Pavilion designed by Counterspace’s Sumayya Vally, whose transparency he considers a good example of architecture that works well for deaf people

Imagine embarking on an architecture degree where there are no agreed words for concepts as fundamental as cantilever, section or plan. It sounds impossible, but that is the task facing any young deaf sign language user who wants to become an architect.

There are simply no commonly accepted signs for most of the terms that architects and other construction professionals rely on. When a deaf person wishes to study, work or just express an interest in the built environment, they and their interpreter have to make up their own signs as they go along.

When the barriers are this great, it is hardly surprising there are so few deaf architects (or other consultants and contractors) in the UK, or indeed anywhere. Chris Laing, a 29-year-old architectural assistant at Haworth Tompkins, knows of only three fully qualified deaf architects in the UK, and he has one other deaf friend in the profession, Adolfs Kristapsons from Pilbrow & Partners, who is also a part II architectural assistant. 

Together they are determined to break the cycle of repeatedly making new signs, and have begun a project called Signstrokes to create a British Sign Language (BSL) lexicon for the built environment.

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