AT ITS BEST, architecture — like any creative endeavor with the power to move us — elevates the human experience: through artistic expression and appreciation, through technical know-how and innovation, through design that enhances community and connection. Sometimes, though, architecture lets us down, shuts us out, sets us apart.
And then — at our best — we humans elevate the experience of architecture. For everyone.
Nationally recognized accessibility consultant and architect Karen Braitmayer has experienced this dynamic of architecture, inclusion and exclusion from more perspectives than most humans — including from her own zippy motorized wheelchair. Her powerful work moves us, and design, toward a better place: by erasing barriers, inviting us in, fostering participation — in one special sense, moving us so literally that there exists an actual operable elevator with her name on it.
As founder and managing principal of the Seattle accessibility-consulting firm Studio Pacifica, Braitmayer and her mighty team of five have collaborated with some of the region’s most influential architects to maximize accessibility, for people of all ages and abilities, to some of our most-accessed and most distinct buildings — the Amazon Spheres, the Space Needle, Seattle’s Central Library, among dozens of others — as well as multiple civic, educational, healthcare and residential projects (including her own award-winning home).
As an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), public-policy and accessibility-code superguru, Braitmayer was appointed to the United States Access Board by President Barack Obama in 2010 (and again, for a second term, in 2014). It’s a position she still holds — along with the cheerful hope that she someday might meet her appointer. (“There is still time,” she says. “As long as the two of us are still alive, there’s time!”)
As a registered architect, Braitmayer has been admitted to the College of Fellows by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) — and in June, she and her family jetted to Las Vegas so Braitmayer could accept the group’s hugely prestigious Whitney M. Young Jr. Award for her “professional and personal leadership role advocating for civil rights for people with disabilities, social sustainability, public policy and universal design.” She is only the fourth female recipient in the award’s 47-year history (“Isn’t that startling?” she asks), and the first person awarded for contributing to civil rights for people with disabilities.
“I think this particular selection is a sign that AIA is expanding their definition of diversity, that they are recognizing the lack of people with disabilities in the profession and see the value in not only increasing the diversity of the profession, but also the impact that architects have on the lives of people with disabilities,” she says. “If you think about it, the work we do as architects can so easily welcome or exclude people with disabilities. And often, I think, it’s inadvertent, the exclusion — but it does happen.”
At the award ceremony, Braitmayer was interviewed by “99% Invisible” podcaster Roman Mars before a crowd of thousands (including two especially enthusiastic admirers: her husband, David Erskine, and their daughter, 22-year-old University of Portland graduate Anita Erskine). It was an extremely public affirmation of Braitmayer’s impassioned pursuit of architectural accessibility and inclusion.
This particular pursuit is also intensely personal. Braitmayer, who has Osteogenesis Imperfecta (a genetic bone disorder known as “brittle bone disease”), is a lifelong wheelchair user. Anita uses one, too (also zippy, but manual).
“I do this accessibility-consulting thing selfishly. I want those buildings to be accessible. Otherwise I can’t participate. So I’m doing it for myself, and for my family, my daughter, my friends and my community,” Braitmayer says. “When I was a young person, people would say, ‘Oh, you should do something around disability stuff,’ and I’m like, ‘No. I just want to be an architect, like everybody else.’ Right? And then, I was working in a big firm, and I’m looking over people’s shoulders, and I’m saying, ‘Oh, you don’t want to do that,’ like kind of editing their work, and then I realized maybe there was a place for that. Maybe I could be helpful.”
BRAITMAYER GREW UP in the little coastal town of Darien, Connecticut, with one younger brother and one younger sister. Everyone was expected to help and contribute. Equally.
“I come from a family background that believes in the value of giving back to the community, through volunteerism, philanthropy, but mostly through doing, so I was always someone who would volunteer,” Braitmayer says.
If contribution is a constant throughout Braitmayer’s life and work, appreciation is its constant companion.
“I was mainstreamed. I did not go to a ‘special’ school or a ‘special’ classroom. I was allowed to be in a traditional classroom with my peers,” she says. “And so I benefited from a community, a school district, a school administrator who said, ‘Well, of course you can come.’ But I might have had another experience. So I’m terribly grateful. It was not a struggle in my home community, but many of my peers at my age with my disability did not have that choice.”
Still, Braitmayer encountered barriers — lots of shops in Darien were in old houses, she says, with “two steps up the front, so I can’t get in the door” — and at times, her community elevated her.
“My fourth, fifth and sixth grade were on the second floor of a building without an elevator, so every day, they carried me upstairs — either my mom or one of the staff at school — and so I stayed upstairs all day and ate lunch in the classroom and went back down at the end of the day,” she says. “At the time, I was just glad to be in school.”
Braitmayer’s parents supported her “exactly the same way” as they did her siblings, she says: At 12, she was encouraged to venture the 10 blocks downtown, like kids did, with a friend “popping my chair up and down every intersection.” When she was 16, a gym teacher offered to teach her how to drive. “My mom was like, ‘WHAT?!?’ But bless her heart: I took driver’s ed. I got my driver’s license, just like everybody else, in the same timeframe everybody else did. And I learned to drive with hand controls. I am a very good driver, if I do say so. That was such a liberating experience. Because when I was in the car, nobody saw my wheelchair, or saw me as different. I was just a driver, like everybody else.”
In college at Rice University, Braitmayer took a “semester at sea” and sailed abroad for four months. “I know my mom was very scared about what that would be like for me, but she let me go,” she says. “It wasn’t until I was a parent that I realized how hard that must’ve been and how brave she was to know that that was something I wanted to do, and I should be able to do, to just let me do it. I tried to remember that when my daughter was younger and was asking to do things.”
It was Braitmayer’s father who suggested, perhaps insistently, that she attend an aptitude-testing program after earning her bachelor’s degree in behavioral science. She had wanted to be a sociological researcher — at least, until she became one, “and discovered that actually I did not really like the work.”
“My path to architecture was nontraditional,” says Braitmayer. “I went to school with so many friends who knew at the age of 7 that they wanted to be an architect. I had no idea. I did finally enroll [at the nearby University of Houston, where she earned her master’s degree in architecture], and I loved it more than I loved anything else. I loved it from Day One.”
BRAITMAYER DOES NOT love heights. But here she is, 520 feet up, on the not-much-between-us-and-the-hard-hard-ground Observation Deck of the Space Needle, keeping a comfy-ish distance from the edge.
This is a huge deal — not just because she’s braving a totally reasonable unease, but because she and her wheelchair can get out here in the first place.
This is a huge credit to the team at Olson Kundig — including design principal Alan Maskin, project architect Blair Payson and architecture team principal Marlene Chen — who brought in Braitmayer as a consultant for the Needle’s top-to-bottom Century Project renovation. (Braitmayer also worked with Olson Kundig on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center and on the Wagner Education Center at The Center for Wooden Boats.)
“The Space Needle was built in the ’60s,” says Payson. “It’s obviously a fantastic building for views, but accessibility, especially to the outer deck, was a challenge. In the ’70s and ’80s, they added lifts to the staircases, but they were always malfunctioning. That was one of the top priorities of the renovation: accessibility to the outer Observation Deck. When you go [there] now, there’s a bench every other bay that you can sit on and slide back toward the view: the thrill aspect. In between the benches, you can pull up and experience the view in a much wider way. Karen played a big role in getting that equivalent experience for people who can’t get on the bench.”
Braitmayer is saving her thrill aspect, thank you very much, for the ingeniously elegant new custom Sesame Access lift that eases her down to the deck (and back up). A mechanical miracle of well-formed function, it’s basically part of the stairs, until it smoothly morphs into an enclosed platform lift.
“I rode on a very similar version in London,” she says. “We pushed a button, and Anita and I were like: [Gasp!] I thought that’d be an idea for the Space Needle. It’s really beautifully integrated. It’s sort of one of a kind, the first certainly in the Pacific Northwest, maybe even nationally … and it’s really beautifully designed. That is very cool.”
Maskin also designed the rotating glass floor — The Loupe — to replace the aged concrete and steel on the Needle’s former restaurant level. It also is totally accessible. “It’s a tribute to the amount of detailing it takes for someone in a wheelchair to come up an elevator and smoothly roll out onto the glass floor,” he says. “People in a wheelchair can appreciate the view below from 500 feet.”
(Braitmayer appreciates this level’s view just fine, thank you very much again, from closer to the inner wall.)
Still: She is here. She can see as much of the Space Needle as she’d like to see (including the restrooms, which, she says, “had been mildly dicey” to access before the addition of a new elevator stop). And she has left a landmark legacy.
In a letter supporting Braitmayer’s award nomination, Olson Kundig owner and design principal Tom Kundig wrote: “For the first time in its 54-year history, the entire Space Needle experience is now fully accessible — a momentous accomplishment that owes much to Karen’s expertise.”
STUDIO PACIFICA is housed on a dock over Lake Union, surrounded by shimmering water and filled with symbols of her work both structural (a Lego model of the Space Needle — “a bear to make”— sits on her desk) and soulful.
In addition to her consulting work and cross-country appearances, Braitmayer also speaks to high school and college students, and she has been a mentor with the University of Washington’s DO-IT program (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) “for a long, long time,” she says. “I feel a close relationship to that program. I met one of my employees when she was a participant in DO-IT.”
Braitmayer credits her own “amazing mentor” — Barbara Allan, who worked with Easterseals — for encouraging her involvement with Washington state code development. “She recognized before I did the novelty of a wheelchair user who was an architect, and that I speak the language of architecture while advocating for the needs of people with mobility devices,” Braitmayer says. “I feel like I have a community of people that rely on us to get it right so that they can get in and use the building and not be afraid to leave home.”
Because Studio Pacifica is an accessibility-consulting firm, it handles the accessibility-consulting duties you might expect (identifying noncompliance, offering best-practices advice), and then, because it matters, recognizing opportunities — at every scale — to exceed code requirements. “We aim to do that, ‘Hey; let’s try to go a little bit beyond’ on every project,” Braitmayer says — maybe not always “a very big gesture” like the lift at the Space Needle, but even an extra bathroom soap dispenser that everyone can reach can make a very big difference.
And, because its founder is an architect, the design element of Studio Pacifica’s work also tends to exceed standards. “I’m passionate about good design,” she says. “And I think good design is accessible design, or you could turn it around: Accessible design is good design. You need to put the same care into designing the accessibility as you put into all the other components of your building — the way things look and feel and sound. It’s thinking about all the humans that are going to go into your building and accommodating all the humans that are going to go in there.”
Braitmayer has witnessed — and influenced — significant progress in architectural accessibility and inclusion since she founded Studio Pacifica in 1993 (the ADA was enacted in 1990), but “progress” does not equal “mission accomplished.”
“Washington state has had accessibility codes since the early ’70s, so our building stock is pretty good,” she says. “The biggest problem is that the ADA was intended to resolve all barriers in our building stock over time, and even existing buildings are required to remove barriers — and that has been very slow to happen. So there are places that you can’t get in. You might not be able to work, go to school effectively, be a gainful member of society. That’s what people with disabilities want: to be able to participate and give back to the community, just like any other adult. We’re not there. I want young people with disabilities not to think we’re done but to recognize there’s more to do.”
BRAITMAYER’S MAGNOLIA HOME is such a model of good, accessible design, it is something of a celebrity itself.
“We won a national honor award for her house,” says architect Carol Sundstrom of ROM architecture studio, a friend and frequent collaborator who worked with Braitmayer to remodel her family’s midcentury-modern home. “It was in 2011, the AIA/HUD Secretary’s Alan J. Rothman Award for housing accessibility. We went to New Orleans that year to get that award. We arrive in the room where they’re going to present it, and they’re all [notoriously inaccessible] high-top bar tables. You win one; you lose a lot. There’s still work to be done.” (Braitmayer’s home was featured in Pacific NW magazine that year, too.)
More recently, Sundstrom, Braitmayer and her award-winning home — along with a Pioneer Square loft on which the two also teamed — steal the show in a new video series by the Cerebral Palsy Foundation called Accessibility is Beautiful. (It’s a small world, HGTV-style: The series is hosted by John Gidding, and Sundstrom is a finalist in the network’s 2019 Designer of the Year Awards.)
Truly, it is beautiful. Braitmayer’s home is open and bright. Streamlined and efficient. Personalized and clever. It works for each member of the family, and for the whole family.
“One of the things Karen and I implore is: Let your home be where things are easy,” Sundstrom says. “There are enough obstacles out there. Save your energy for when you go out.”
Braitmayer easily steers her customized Toyota Sienna right up to the dangling tennis ball in her garage, where there’s a no-step entrance into the home. Inside, chairs are stacked in the dining room, rather than placed around the table. “Some of us come with our own, so we don’t have chairs out very often,” she says.
Highly personalized design shines in the kitchen. “We pretty much live here, eat and do homework here,” says Braitmayer. “Carol was instrumental in figuring out the layout. Once she gave the shape, I was like, ‘OK. This is what I want the kitchen to do.’ ”
A low-set table extends from the kitchen island, with a center pedestal that leaves room for knees all around. The oven door opens from the side. “The whole idea is that we could pull something out of the oven, put it on the stove, in the sink, in the dishwasher and put them away with a two-step process,” says daughter Anita.
“This is just using every bit of space,” Braitmayer says. “That’s the benefit of thinking three-dimensionally: I’m putting my baking sheets where I can reach them.”
That’s Braitmayer speaking as an architect, as a cook and as a wheelchair user. She gets it, from all perspectives.
“She doesn’t just know what the code is telling you you’re supposed to do; she can also tell you the intent,” says Sundstrom. “When things are a little in the gray zone, being able to rely on her understanding of why the rule is there … nobody else has that deep level of understanding that I know.”
BRAITMAYER AND DAVID ERSKINE met, and later wed, at The Center for Wooden Boats, the maritime community on Lake Union where Braitmayer volunteered with a sailing group for people with disabilities after she first moved here from Houston, and where Erskine, a marine mechanic, has volunteered practically every day for more than 30 years.
They don’t completely agree on the specifics of that 1992 meeting. For sure it happened in the parking lot, but Braitmayer claims her car’s wheelchair lift first drew Erskine’s attention, while he maintains, “I was kind of interested in the mechanism, but it was really the blonde.” Either way, Erskine handed Braitmayer his number. Two summers later, they were married in the Center’s pavilion, with the reception on the public docks. The opportunistic public crashed the party.
Understandably, this space holds a special place in their hearts. Also in Braitmayer’s résumé: She worked with Olson Kundig to boost the accessibility of the new Wagner Education Center.
This project was intensely personal, too. All the way to the pocketbook.
For one thing, given the connection, this consultation was pro bono. For another, The Center for Wooden Boats holds classes and family activities — all super-popular — in a gorgeous lofted space upstairs: cork floors, plywood and steel-clad walls, fabulous views. Note, however: up stairs.
“We felt it was really important to the use and inclusion to include an elevator,” Braitmayer says. “But the building is a size that does not require an elevator by code. I was having a really hard time that they would build without an elevator. Everything about the Center is volunteer-run, and it’s really hard to raise money for something the city doesn’t require.”
Maskin, of Olson Kundig, recalls: “When Karen was brought in, she wanted to provide an elevator for people to get to the second floor — all people — and elevators are expensive. In the end, Karen made a sizable donation. It was significant. And there is an elevator there.”
It is right by the entry desk. You can’t miss it. But you can ride it. Everyone can.
It’s called the Braitmayer Erskine Elevator.