Karen Braitmayer

Gazing down at architect Karen Braitmayer from her living room wall is a depiction of the Hindu God Ganesh, remover of obstacles. Photo by © Moris Moreno.

Karen Braitmayer is a certified architect, a wheelchair user with osteogenesis imperfecta and the founder of the Seattle-based accessibility consulting firm Studio Pacifica. She is well known within the world of Seattle architecture, and her clients – some of the largest companies in the world – include Amazon, Nike, Starbucks and Microsoft. Additionally, she consults with other award-winning architects as they complete projects that will shape the character of her city for decades to come.

In addition to her day job, she’s also involved nationally with public policy and education. President Obama appointed her to the U.S. Access Board, which helps define the nation’s accessibility standards, and she travels the country to moderate panels and educate architecture professionals on inclusive design.

In recognition of her impact and accomplishments, in 2019, the American Institute of Architects awarded her its Whitney M. Young Award for Social Responsibility. Tom Kundig, one of the most revered architects in the country, whose firm worked with Braitmayer to renovate Seattle’s iconic Space Needle, wrote a letter supporting her nomination for the prize. It was emphatic and detailed, and it contained a line that sums up the feelings of most everyone who has had a chance to work with Braitmayer: “Karen represents the best that our field can offer.”

We agree. There’s no hyperbole in saying that Braitmayer has as much positive impact on making our built environment more accessible and inclusive as anyone working in the United States today. We are proud to name Braitmayer the 2019 NEW MOBILITY Person of the Year.

Rising from the downtown hills that overlook the island-packed waters of the Puget Sound, two very different monuments straddle Seattle’s 5th Avenue. On one side is the old federal courthouse. Built in 1940, it is an imposing monolith of art deco concrete, set high atop a cascade of stairs, with its only accessible entrance hidden around the back of the building.

On the other side of 5th Avenue is Seattle’s flagship Central Library, built in 2004 and deemed “the most important new library to be built in a generation, and the most exhilarating” by The New Yorker. The building is a dizzying stack of overhanging trapezoids cast in glass and latticed steel that extends over the sidewalk to create a sheltered corridor along the edge of the sidewalk. You can pass through it without so much as a threshold. In fact, there isn’t a single stair along any of the street-side entrances to the building.

Accessing the building, it’s clear that times have changed. But as you go about using the space, things get more complicated. One of the central features of the building is the “book spiral,” a four-story space that houses the library’s main collection and wraps around itself in a continuous ramp.

The Dutch architecture firm that designed the library saw the spiral as an innovative way to accommodate the ever-changing nature of a library’s catalog without the artificial breaks caused by separate floors. But Karen Braitmayer, along with other community members, noticed a glaring accessibility issue in the public review portion of the design process.

Originally, the book stacks were going to be set into a continual slope, forcing users to navigate an unending cross slope as they tried to find their book. The final design kept the descending spiral but set each row of books on a level shelf. “You are operating on a constant series of small, sloped spaces, with a level space in between,” Braitmayer says. “It is technically compliant, but I question whether it was a really good and useful solution.”

The experiences of both monuments speak to architecture’s power to exclude or include, to make us a welcome part of the city or to relegate us to the margins. It’s easy to see how far we’ve come in the past 80 years, but once you get in the door, there can still be a long way to go.

Braitmayer shares breakfast with her husband, David Erskine, and their daughter, Anita. Note how well this room accommodates the family, from table height to the space between appliances and cabinets to how the kitchen flows into the living room behind it.

Braitmayer shares breakfast with her husband, David Erskine, and their daughter, Anita. Note how well this room accommodates the family, from table height to the space between appliances and cabinets to how the kitchen flows into the living room behind it. Photo by © Moris Moreno.

Mainstreamed

Braitmayer grew up in Darien, Connecticut, a place she describes as “a very well-to-do, suburban New York City community.” Her father was a business executive and her mother a stay-at-home mom. Braitmayer was the oldest, and her parents didn’t even know she had a disability until she was diagnosed around the age of 6. They noticed that their daughter was small and that she did some clumsy things and broke bones, but they were first-time parents and didn’t have much to compare her to. “It wasn’t until my sister came along that they even thought, ‘she’s really small.’”

When she was finally diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta, the doctor told her parents that things were going to be different, and more difficult. A lifetime later, Braitmayer still chuckles at her parents’ response, which was typical of their attitude toward her disability: “Well, I don’t know, she seems fine to me.”

In 1960s pre-ADA America, when Braitmayer began to use a wheelchair in elementary school, public space accessibility didn’t really exist. “There were no curb cuts, no accessible parking spaces, nowhere to sit in the movie theater. I was a fire hazard for years,” she jokes. But still, she describes her childhood as a typical one. “I was mainstreamed, so I went to a neighborhood school, same one my brother and sister went to.” Around home, Braitmayer and her siblings were held to the same set of high expectations — they were expected to do chores, do well in school, and go to college. “In my family, they expected that I would be able to do whatever I wanted to do, with some obvious limitations, like walking up stairs,” she says.

Braitmayer pores over plans with an associate at her business, Studio Pacifica.

Braitmayer pores over plans with an associate at her business, Studio Pacifica. Photo by © Moris Moreno.

When people tried to push her away from an opportunity because of her disability, she simply refused to accept the premise of the rejection. She recalls applying for a job in high school at a gift shop with stairs at the entrance. The manager called her and told her he was sorry, but they couldn’t offer her the job because they didn’t have an accessible entrance. Braitmayer responded that her family could help her up the stairs. Well, the manager said, he didn’t think their bathroom was accessible either. “Oh, I can use just about anything,” she responded. “I’ll come take a look and let you know if it’ll work.” Braitmayer figures they really didn’t want to offer her the job, but every time they offered a disability-based excuse, she offered a solution.

She got the job. Her mom had to pull her up the stairs into the building for every shift, and the bathroom was terrible, but Braitmayer made it work. “If he had said, ‘We don’t have a job for you,’ I might have accepted it. … But I wasn’t going to let them say no because I was in a wheelchair.”

Braitmayer started undergrad at Houston’s Rice University in 1977, and like many young people, she didn’t really know what she wanted to do with her life. She wound up with a degree in behavioral sciences and got a job in sociological research. She lasted three months before deciding that research was definitely not the career for her.

At the suggestion of her father, she took an aptitude test. It listed medicine, engineering and architecture as the careers most matched to her interests and talents. Medicine and engineering were non-starters, but architecture was intriguing. “As a kid, I did a lot of crafts. I used a lot of paper and glue and cardboard and fabric. I liked to make stuff,” she says. “Architecture is making stuff for a living.”

Upon enrolling in an architecture master’s program at the University of Houston, Braitmayer knew immediately that she’d made the right decision, even if her classmates had to custom build a workspace that was low enough for her to use. “The first few weeks of design studio, I was hooked. This was the coolest thing. I got to play with pens and paper, and it was exactly what I like to do,” she says. “I have never turned back. I love it.”

Shifting Perspective

After graduating with her master’s degree in architecture, Braitmayer had little desire to put accessibility at the center of her career. In 1985, she got an internship at Ray Bailey, a large architecture firm based in Houston, doing mainstream architecture in a state that had few building codes. But the work and the culture weren’t a good fit for her, and when economic pressures caused the bottom to drop out of the Houston building market, she packed up and moved cross-country again, this time to Seattle.

This hallway is designed to be a series of gently-sloped ramps interspersed with level platforms.

In Seattle, a respected local architect suggested that she go into “handicap” architecture. “I was almost insulted,” she says. She didn’t have anything against making buildings accessible, just a suspicion that this man only saw her disability, not her talent as an architect.

After landing at a mainstream Seattle architecture firm, however, Braitmayer found that she couldn’t help but notice when colleagues were drafting needlessly inaccessible features into their plans. “You don’t want to do that!” she’d think, and couldn’t help but offer advice, even if it was unsolicited. “I kept sticking my nose in where it probably didn’t belong,” she says.

At the same time, Braitmayer began hanging out with other people with disabilities — she joined an adaptive sailing club and made disabled friends. The experience started to change her perspective and showed her that her struggles with an inaccessible environment weren’t hers alone. She met a graphic designer named Barbara Allan who was involved with Easter Seals and had helped develop an illustrated guide for accessibility principles. “She met me and went, ‘ooh, architect and a wheelchair user!” says Braitmayer. “So she kind of took me under her wing.”

Allan helped get Braitmayer a seat on the Washington State Building Code Council representing people with disabilities. That was the first experience that really gave her a mindset that she had a role to play in the broader movement for access. “It was probably a 10-year process of shifting my mindset from ‘What am I going to do?’ to “What can I help with?’” she says. “A lot of that, I think, is a growing up process.”

That shift helped her realize that as both an architect and a wheelchair user, she had a unique perspective. In 1994, she left her job to open Studio Pacifica, and transitioned from working as a generalist architect to a consultant. In her new role she advised other architects on the nuts and bolts of accessibility code, how design decisions affect people with varying mobility needs, where problems may arise and potential solutions that account for the needs of all users. “I’ve been the one trying to build this thing on budget and on time for a client. So I understand their pressures. And I also know that I want to get in the door, and I want my family to be able to get in the door, so I’m trying to find a way to make those two things come together,” she says.

Thinking Beyond Code

A big part of Braitmayer’s success comes from her perspective and creative talents. “She comes at it as a professional and as a community member. She doesn’t come at it as a vigilante. There’s nothing overreaching about her approach at all,” says Carol Sundstrom, a residential architect who has been a friend and colleague of Braitmayer’s for decades. “She comes at it with a very deep understanding of what you’re being asked to do in the code, and also, why did that even end up in the code?”

For Braitmayer, accessibility code isn’t just a prescription to be applied, it’s a framework within which good design can flourish. Architects always work around constraints — budget, climate conditions, site topography, building materials, seismic requirements or any number of others — and those constraints are often the impetus for creative inspiration. Accessibility doesn’t have to be a burden, “I think of it as an extra place to shine, an extra place to really make a project special,” says Sundstrom.

Within the field of architecture, though, accessibility isn’t often thought of in those terms. In architecture school, it’s taught alongside plumbing and electrical codes. Glanced over is a kind way of putting it. Accessibility is often interpreted as a set of features, like grab bars and lowered urinals, that are plunked onto a design at the end of the process. Code sets a uniform standard, a baseline of access requirements, but good design is about anticipating how the built environment influences the experiences of the people using it and making that environment work for the broadest range of people as possible.

“So many times, disability-centered design just feels so sterile and so functional,” says Rebecca Cokley, who served in the Obama administration and was part of the team that appointed Braitmayer to the Access Board. What Braitmayer brings to accessible design is “a different sort of creative flair that I feel like is missing,” Cokley says.

Braitmayer zips along the ramp outside of Seattle’s Amazon Spheres. Her firm was consulted to help make the Spheres and the area surrounding them as accessible as possible.

Braitmayer zips along the ramp outside of Seattle’s Amazon Spheres. Her firm was consulted to help make the Spheres and the area surrounding them as accessible as possible. Photo by © Moris Moreno.

Architecture’s Other Diversity Problem

The biggest problem with Karen Braitmayer is that there’s only one of her. Just as the practice of architecture has long excluded those with physical disabilities from the built environment, so too has the profession excluded people with disabilities from its ranks. These phenomena are not unrelated. Braitmayer, a certified architect and a woman who uses a wheelchair, is a bit of a unicorn.

In June 2019, when Braitmayer rolled onto the stage at the American Institute of Architects’ national conference in Las Vegas to accept the Whitney M. Young Award, she was the first architect in the 40-plus-year history of the prize whose work focused on accessibility. She was also only the fourth woman to receive the award.

The profession has a long-documented and ongoing problem with diversity: as of 2017, only 19% of certified architects were women, and in 2018, only 15% of newly certified architects identified as non-white or Latino. As bad as those numbers may look, the statistics for people with disabilities don’t even exist. The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards produces an annual “By the Numbers” report that looks at the industry’s demographics, but it doesn’t include disability alongside its gender and ethnic data.

It’s both shocking and baffling to Braitmayer that there are people within the field, even those interested in diversity and inclusion, who don’t make the connection that people with disabilities should be treated just as any other underrepresented group until they happen to hear her speak on the issue. “I had no idea!” one earnest young woman exclaimed after hearing Braitmayer talk about access and disability as part of a diversity panel.

For decades, the AIA has been trying to chip away at its diversity problem by offering scholarships to members of underrepresented groups, as well as hosting events and programs that reach out to the same communities. These efforts have had an impact, with gender and POC disparities slowly improving, but until recently, the AIA didn’t include disability in any of these diversity efforts.

Last July, the same month that she accepted the Whitney M. Young award, Braitmayer called out the gatekeepers of the profession in an article for Architect Magazine: “It’s time we name the real roadblock for students with disabilities considering architecture as a career: academic and professional stereotyping and discrimination, and omission from diversity programs in the industry.”

Braitmayer followed by calling for a culture shift in architecture to make disabled practitioners more welcomed into the industry. At the same time, she has been pushing for the AIA, architectural organizations and schools to add disability to their diversity programs and as a qualifying criterion for diversity scholarships. She does all this while also traveling the country to educate design professionals about inclusion and access.

At long last, these efforts are gaining institutional backing. In October, AIA published an article that it promoted on the front page of its website calling for a culture change to center access and inclusion from the very start of the design process. That came just months after the award ceremony for the Whitney prize, which served as direct acknowledgement from the AIA that architecture’s much needed diversification has to include disability. “Her selection wasn’t an accident,” says Katie Wilson, who served as the jury chair for this year’s award.

Braitmayer’s thoughtful approach to accessibility allows wheelchair users to mingle with nondisabled patrons at the Deep Dive Bar, located in the Amazon Spheres.

Braitmayer’s thoughtful approach to accessibility allows wheelchair users to mingle with nondisabled patrons at the Deep Dive Bar, located in the Amazon Spheres.

Change Via Representation

To give people with different mobility needs an equivalent experience in a space, you have to be able to anticipate how different features will affect different people. If the ADA says you have to have one lower counter at a gym’s check-in desk, are hurried employees going to offer to log out of their computer and onto a different one for a single customer? Is there any reason that you couldn’t rearrange the work area and lower the entire counter so that a wheelchair user doesn’t have an internal battle about whether or not to speak up every time they get to the gym and would really prefer to just workout instead of having a conversation about access? You most likely wouldn’t think about any of this unless you’ve had experience with being the short person at a too-tall check-in counter or know someone who has.

Wheelchair users and people with other disabilities make up a large minority of society but remain glaringly absent from many workplaces. Involving disabled professionals and community members in the design process is a critical component of more inclusive design, but better integrating disabled employees throughout all levels of employment would help drive a more inclusive culture as well. When your employees, colleagues and bosses have disabilities, you can’t help but broaden your perspective and internalize some of the challenges that people with varying mobility needs encounter on a daily basis. “Designers design for what they know,” says Braitmayer.

Three of the five accessibility consultants at Studio Pacifica have a physical disability. There are two wheelchair users and two employees with hearing loss (Braitmayer fits in both categories), and the firm regularly collaborates with an accessibility specialist with low vision/blindness. The data to know what the numbers look like throughout the architecture industry as a whole is still lacking, but it’s safe to say that disabled practitioners are grossly underrepresented. Braitmayer, for one, doesn’t think that architects in general have any particular resistance toward designing more inclusive spaces. She just thinks they’re rather unaware of the ways in which features they may view as trivial can affect people with disabilities. “I just don’t think they understand that putting a grab bar in the wrong place, or making a door too heavy, can stop someone in their tracks,” Braitmayer says. “Simple changes might make it possible for people to feel confident enough that they could continue with their education, or get a job, or give back to their communities … whatever it is they want to do.”

Sundstrom, who doesn’t have a disability, began working with the disability community while working alongside Braitmayer in a shared office space. She says that she finds the additional layer of problem solving necessary in inclusive design to be rewarding both personally and creatively. The thing about inclusive design, is that if you do it right, it isn’t just about accommodating disabilities, it works better for everyone.

She’ll sometimes visit a mall in Auburn, a suburb of Seattle, and watch how people use the space. “They’ve blended stairs and ramps throughout the mall, and I find it interesting how few people use the stairs. In that particular design, the ramps are in the middle, not stuck off to the side where you have to go find them, so everybody just uses the ramps. When it’s designed well, and it’s design-integrated, then we all benefit — we don’t even think about it.”

Architects still love stairs — they’re a feature that can make buildings look really cool. But if you work and live alongside people without perfect mobility, it’s pretty easy to see that when a ramp is done right, nobody misses the stairs.

A Deep Dive Into Good Design

In the basement underneath the Spheres — Amazon’s 90-foot-high conservatories of hexagonal glass that house 40,000 plants, in addition to serving as an employee workspace and lounge — sits a small bar called the Deep Dive. It’s a moody place of dim lights, dark curving wood and overstuffed furniture. Amazon brought Braitmayer on early in the design process, and usually when that’s the case, providing access is not an issue, because you have control of all of the design elements.

But Deep Dive was a leftover space in the basement of a building that the architects were tasked with turning into a public bar. In terms of spaces, “it was the worst of the worst,” says Braitmayer. There was a street-level entrance door, a lower floor slab that would have to serve as the bar’s main seating area and an intermediate level floor slab at the back of the space. Working with Braitmayer, the architects designed an elegant solution: a ramp that descends from the door, wraps around to access the main level and then ascends to the higher rear floor in a single, sweeping curve. The bar top is a consistent-height slab of wood that bridges both levels. At the raised rear end, there’s enough space for two wheelchair users, or you and a date, to sit with the bar top just over your knees, eye-level with the bartender and the patrons on the main level.

Good design doesn’t have to be grand, elevated, or even bold. But it does have to be thoughtful. Good design is accessible, Braitmayer likes to say. Good design lets you in the door and makes you feel welcome to sit down for a drink.

An Architect at Home

In 1996, Karen Braitmayer and her husband, David Erskine, bought a mid-century style ranch home in the hills of Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood. The home was already a single level, so it didn’t take much more than a ramp through the garage to make it work. They added another family member, and another wheelchair user, in 2000, when they adopted their daughter, Anita.

The family made the space work, but there were always annoyances — oddly sized and out of proportion spaces, and a kitchen that was nearly impossible for two wheelchair users to occupy simultaneously. Braitmayer partnered with Carol Sundstrom to remodel the house. The two architects decided to drill deep into how the various members of the family would use different parts of the house and how to make daily life easier for everyone. “We took it as an opportunity for her home to be a laboratory of ideas that really take things a step further in terms of ease and comfort,” says Sundstrom.

The remodeled kitchen features a long island of two different heights. The lowest section is open underneath with space for two wheelchairs to roll under. It’s directly across from the fridge so that food can be transferred to the island where it’s easiest for Braitmayer and her daughter to prep food. The sink was installed with faucet and controls at the side and an open bottom so that Braitmayer could make the most of her limited reach. The pièce de résistance, for Braitmayer at least, is a cabinet that pops open and reveals a shelf with a Kitchen Aid mixer that can easily be pulled out over a lap. Braitmayer loves baking cookies, and over a decade after the remodel was completed, this feature still makes her giddy. There’s a master bathroom with an open roll-in shower that works well for Braitmayer and Erskine, and another with a tub and bench works well for Anita, who has a different level of function than her mother.

The effect of this level of customization and thoughtful planning is a home that resembles a well-fitted wheelchair: optimized for their bodies and their lives. “One of the things Karen and I implore is: Let your home be where things are easy,” Sundstrom told the Seattle Times. “There are enough obstacles out there. Save your energy for when you go out.”

Renovating an Icon

Seattle’s Space Needle is one of the most iconic buildings in the country. Braitmayer consulted on the recently completed $100 million renovation of the 1962 building. One of the biggest accessibility issues was providing wheelchair access to the outer observation deck at the top of the tower. There was elevator access to the top level, but an unreliable platform lift made stairs the only practical way to get to the outdoor ring that provided the most expansive views of the city. “In all the years I went, it was never functional,” says Braitmayer.

Experiencing the Space Needle is all about the views, and a major part of the renovation was removing as many obstructions to those views as possible. Glass floors were installed on the restaurant level, and enormous panes of glass that lean out precariously over the void were installed on the observation deck to replace unsightly security cages. The new feel would be stripped back and sleek, and standard access lifts simply wouldn’t do. “They were looking for something that blended in with the iconic architecture.”

On a trip to London, Braitmayer and her daughter had seen a wheelchair lift that operates a bit like a magic trick: one minute they are a set of stairs, the next minute it transforms into a platform lift with guardrails — all with the push of a button.

The mission of the renovation was to let visitors see more than they ever had before. Thanks to Braitmayer’s help, wheelchair users can now lean out over the edge and let their stomachs drop alongside everyone else.

The “Accessibility is Beautiful” YouTube miniseries, hosted by HGTV’s John Gidding, featured outstanding residences designed to be both breathtaking and functional. Braitmayer’s home was showcased, along with the homes of Randy Earle and Leslie Haynes, and the absolutely stunning Casa Cabo Pulmo, owned by Pat Wright and Deb Zeyen, that was featured in the series finale. Click here to view a photo essay about Casa Cabo Pulmo.