Karen Braitmayer - Architect
For Karen Braitmayer, architect, the ADA has made it possible for people to expect their world to be accessible. She’s not complacent about that concept, and her work has been instrumental in building local, state, and national understanding of design issues. But her influence doesn’t stop there.
Named in 2004 by the American Institute of Architects to the prestigious College of Fellows for her work on accessibility, Braitmayer owns Studio Pacifica, a small Seattle-based firm that offers design and consulting services. She has been involved with numerous advisory committees and helped shape policy. To understand how one individual could possibly have such a broad impact, it helps to look at her background.
Born with the genetic disorder osteogenesis imperfecta, Braitmayer has used a wheelchair all her life. Growing up in the pre-ADA 1970’s and driving herself to the store, she had to find two parking spots side-by-side to have room to get out with her chair. She tells the story of being accepted at two universities, one an Ivy League school and the other Rice University. Visiting both campuses, Braitmayer found that the Ivy League school was proud and excited that students with mobility impairments could get into one dorm, while virtually all the dorms at Rice University were accessible.
“I wrote a letter to the Ivy League school declining their acceptance offer,” she says, “and said that they needed to improve.”
But Braitmayer didn’t gravitate to architecture until after she had graduated with a degree in the liberal arts, and her father urged her to consider other fields. Accepted in the Master of Architecture program at the University of Houston, Braitmayer found her studies to be a great match for her interests, and met her future business partner, George Hollowell. When she graduated, she worked in Houston for several years for an architectural firm doing design, then moved on to Seattle in 1987 and continued to work on retail projects.
Braitmayer was often asked for advice by her colleagues on accessible design issues, but it wasn’t until a couple of years after the passage of the ADA that she and George Hollowell left their jobs and founded Studio Pacifica. About the same time she also met her husband, David Erskine. At Studio Pacifica they worked on the design of recording studios, as well as residential and commercial projects. The business had not yet focused on accessible design.
Concurrently she met Barbara Allen of Washington’s Easter Seal Society and one of the authors of “Accessibility Design for All,” a publication that graphically translated code requirements into the visual language of architects. Given her lifelong history of dealing with accessibility, her architectural credentials, and Barbara’s encouragement, Braitmayer found a role for herself as someone who could advocate effectively for good design, codes that made buildings accessible, and be a credible voice for accessible design within her field of architecture.
She became a governor’s appointed member of the Washington State Building Code Council, working to research and draft rules and regulations that would eventually become part of the state Code. When the building codes incorporated accessible features, everyone benefited. Washington State led the nation in accessibility design legislation, and it was the first state to have its regulations certified by the Department of Justice as “equivalent to the requirements of the ADA”. Living in Washington State was very different than other parts of America.
“People don’t realize how accessible Washington is,” Braitmayer says. “It’s startling – we have a much higher level of compliance than do other communities. When I visit other parts of the county, I can’t assume the restaurant will be wheelchair accessible. Here, I don’t call to ask.”
“Not all architects are on board with understanding accessibility codes. The profession supports civil rights, but has a difficult time with the language of the ADA,” she says. She thinks the expected adoption by the Department of Justice this summer of the most recent ADA Accessibility Standards (the 2004 ADAAG) should help. Before being ratified by the DOJ, the Standards may represent good practice but they are not legally binding. The ADAAG language is closer to Model code standards. Braitmayer says, “When that happens, maybe Washington will not be changed so much, but nationally we will see more accessibility, more continuity.” Architects who work with national companies with facilities across the country will benefit from the consistency between Model codes and Federal law.
Braitmayer mentors college-bound high school students with disabilities as part of the University of Washington DO-IT program, and she has offered pro bono services in the design of local projects including Safeco (Mariner baseball) and Quest (Seahawk football and Sounder FC) Fields.
Looking to the future, she says, “The Model code will not be finished, but rather be an on-going process. I’m anxious to see Washington State involved. We can always do better than we’ve done.” She would also like to see HUD adopt the 2004 ADAAG Standards to build consistency. “We need the right agencies to adopt the right language,” she notes.