Olivia Asuncion breaks new ground in a flawed system

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Olivia Asuncion (image courtesy of Asuncion).

For Olivia Asuncion, who was born with a physical disability and has used a wheelchair since age 13, fire drills and building evacuations were always a source of panic and anxiety.

“I, for one, have been in many fire drills and evacuations where I definitely did not know what to do or where to go,” said Asuncion, who graduated from the University of Oregon with a master’s degree in architecture on Monday. She has a condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, which results in brittle bones that are more prone to injury.

“I’m very fortunate that I am small enough so that if worse comes to worst, anyone could just pluck me out of my chair and take me down the stairs. But not all disabilities are the same,” she said.

Since she started attending the UO, however, she’s alchemized this concern into research. Just three weeks before graduation, she placed first in an international competition for the Student Best Design Award from the Environmental Design Research Association.

Her design, which she started working on at the UO in fall 2013, investigates the issues concerning people with physical disabilities during building evacuations — and their potential solutions.

Informal interviews with physically disabled UO students aided Asuncion’s design work and provided anecdotal insight. One student told her that the idea of evacuating from a building’s upper floors is a scary and daunting experience.

“One of the most pertinent things she said was that she feels unprepared if there’s ever an evacuation on campus because of a lack of evacuation protocols,” said Asuncion. “Finding your way around buildings is really difficult.”

Asuncion’s design aims to improve fire safety and building evacuation for people with disabilities by making improvements to evacuation maps so they can be read by people with visual impairments and designing architectural wayfinding solutions that make it easier to navigate a building using tactile maps with texture and color contrast.

Her design also offered an accessible vertical means of egress, which allows building occupants to evacuate independently, and develop “a more visible and comfortable area of refuge” for those unable to evacuate, where occupants can find shelter in an event of an emergency, said Asuncion.

Asuncion, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of California in Berkeley in 2010, used Lawrence Hall and the John E. Jaqua Academic Center as case studies, but says her proposed design can be implemented elsewhere.

“I think a lot of the solutions I proposed apply to multi-family housing, commercial buildings, or entertainment buildings,” she said. “It’s most beneficial to have it be accessible for everyone.”

Architecture professor Jenny Young, who served as Asuncion’s research advisor, taught the seminar and says she encouraged Asuncion to continue her work on it.

“She has investigated an important topic – accessible evacuation – through multiple lenses: a comprehensive literature search, her own experience and on-the-spot experiments, and interviews with a broad range of stakeholders,” said Young.

Asuncion presented her poster during a four-day EDRA symposium in Los Angeles, and was announced as first-place winner on May 30.

According to the EDRA website, the Student Best Design Award criteria call for a design that demonstrates thorough research and an understanding of the relationship between human needs and the built environment, quality of graphic communication and representation, and alignment of the design with EDRA’s mission. EDRA accepts submissions of urban, landscape, architecture, interior, and industrial designs.

“It was a great honor and privilege to receive first place in the Student Best Design Award at EDRA,” wrote Asuncion via email. Though, she adds, the award was just “icing on a very delicious cake” compared with being able to share her research with other environmental design professionals.

Asuncion hopes that this research will encourage environmental designers to learn more about the inaccessibility of building evacuation.

“These changes can make architecture more beautiful but also widely usable. If we sear these lessons of accessibility and life safety and design into our brains instead of all those code-instituted measurements, we can potentially get rid of the term ‘universal design’ and turn it into just ‘design.’ Then the spaces that we build will be more inclusive, seamless, beautiful and safe,” she said.

This story was originally published for The Daily Emerald on June 16, 2015 at http://www.dailyemerald.com/2015/06/16/olivia-asuncion-breaks-new-ground-in-a-flawed-system/

More stories I’ve written for the Emerald can be found here.

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