The Exeter Royal Academy for Deaf Education came to us with the aim of providing new educational facilities for over 140 young people aged 4 to 24, as well as student accommodation and support services. Our primary question was: what space is the most appropriate for the needs of the deaf? To find out, we asked the pupils and staff of the schools, and discovered to our delight that not only were the pupils full of ideas (perhaps the most proactive of any school we had engaged with), but that the process brought staff and pupils together in a dynamic way.
Certain key factors became clear: the importance of space and natural light, the need for a spectrum of public and private spaces that were soft and fluid, and the necessity of excellent acoustics. The main building’s distinctive triangular shape, colourful exterior and transparent ETFE roof all respond to the students’ need for visual connectivity and their heightened visual awareness. We learned that as a deaf child develops and acquires independence and language, the need to integrate with the mainstream is of paramount importance, so we have strived to nurture ‘reverse inclusion’ – that is, to enable the hearing world to experience and learn about the deaf world on deaf terms, through the provision of services such as health and leisure facilities that are mutually beneficial to both communities. This sense of independence is extended with the separation of the high-quality student accommodation from the rest of the school. And within the accommodation, its linear shape allows for the broad range of students’ ages, as well as a degree of flexibility that can accommodate fluctuations in the school’s population.
For many children, being deaf can be a very lonely experience, and the Academy provides a first real haven in an otherwise alienating world. Our hope is that the Academy’s new campus – at once containing yet spacious, visually arresting yet homely, mindful of the needs of the deaf while still welcoming the hearing — engenders a real sense of identity and belonging, and becomes a benchmark for buildings for the deaf for the years to come.
dRMM architects met with the Deaf Academy’s students to explore the plans for their new Academy. Watch this video to find out more about the beginning of their exciting journey.