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Ellis' Blog

October 2018

Bill Green, Youth and Senior Programs Manager at the Blind Service Association in Chicago, also lent significant insight to the relationship between accessibility and housing, as well as navigation and wayfinding. In response to a few questions about the typical architectural barriers for blind and visually impaired people, Bill mentioned several aspects that I was previously unaware of. First, there are few codes that deal with audio and visual signage; most codes include diagrams where braille is inscribed beneath the writing on a sign, but whom does this serve? Not only are these signs difficult for blind and visually impaired people to find, Bill comments, not all visually impaired people read braille in the first place. Therefore, what other forms of signage could be more intuitive and helpful? 

Early last month, I visited Michael Grice’s new apartment in Irving Park, which he recently acquired through an organization called Homes First of Illinois. The organizers worked with him to secure a subsidy and a space that would fit his needs. As a wheelchair user, Mike prefers more than enough space to move, host guests, cook, etc., but finding apartments that are both accessible and affordable are nearly impossible to find.


Mike was on the CHA waiting list for more than six years before they found a viable space. But when they did, Mike worked with the Homes First architects to retrofit the apartment to his specific needs. Countertops were lowered, cabinet bases removed, and the bathroom widened to accommodate the turning radius for his chair and the space needed for a PA to provide care. Homes first also installed a crank system to raise and lower the operable window, without which would have been far too heavy for him to operate, and a long cord around the refrigerator handle so he can open it with one hand. Point is, Mike’s needs were the foundation of the design. Architects can learn from this.

What struck me the most in learning about this issue from Cathleen O’Brien (one of the leading organizers of The Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing, DRACH), Justin Cooper (one of the supporting community members), was the amount of backlash they received from the opposition. One of the opposition’s arguments, according to Justin, was that the building would be “an eyesore,” a recurring argument to disqualify built projects based on aesthetic appearances.  Another compared this project to Cabrini-Green. However, CHI, a coalition of 11 different organizations, demonstrated a new level of political power, and is bound to create housing opportunities for people with disabilities despite the political, social, and physical obstacles that stand in their way.

January has become a month for planning. This week I scheduled meetings with Neighbors for Affordable Housing (NFAH), the Blind Service Association (BSA), as well as Cathleen O’Brien and Adam Ballard from Access Living. At the BSA, I will be discussing my intention to record readings of architectural history books for prospective blind architecture students, as well as plan walk-throughs and field trips with two legally blind members, Sally Cooper and Bill Green. 

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A feat of the Chicago Housing Initiative (CHI) was also recognized for its incredible persistence and resilience throughout a year long process that resulted in a huge victory for Chicago’s low-income and disabled community. At a Chicago City Council meeting on September 19th involving CHI, Alderman John Arena, numerous supporting community members, and a small but vocal opposition, it was announced that a new, mixed-use, affordable accessible housing project would be built in the 45th Ward. This project, if goes according to its plan, will stand as a symbol of the strength and presence of the disabled community within Chicago; a manifesto of their will and rights.

October was intense. Long working hours, project deadlines, along with several meetings made for a quick month with only a little time to look back. Even with a bit of distance, it’s overwhelming to think about everything that happened. A few weeks ago, I knew little about public / affordable / market rate housing, and now I feel lost in the details. After attending the last ADAPT meeting, moreover, it became clear how critical the housing question is for people with disabilities. My question persists; what role do architects have in creating accessible and affordable housing opportunities? How can architects exercise their skills in design and negotiation to make this happen?

Kompas Fellowship | Ellis Wills-Begley

Early December marked a pivotal moment for the housing crisis in Chicago. I was invited to attend the Mayoral Candidate Forum at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Forum, which was hosted by the Chicago Housing Initiative. I witnessed a moment that I will never forget - six of twelve Mayoral candidates appeared to answer questions and to speak about their strategies for improving housing opportunities in Chicago. Each one spoke with a sense of urgency and understanding. “We need housing where community is thriving, not where it’s struggling,” said Mayoral Candidate Toni Preckwinkle. Others spoke their opinions about the housing crisis, the loss of public land, community benefit programs, and most of all the effect Aldermanic elections will have on housing.  The point is, the February 26th election for Mayor and Alderman will be a critical point to determine the direction of housing.

Last week it seemed as though Chicago was emptied out, and replaced with steam, ice, and silence. It was as if nobody was outside, at school, or even on public transportation, as temperatures were recorded as low as -30°F in Illinois. Several meetings that I was hoping to attend were also canceled, simply since we would have to endure the bone-numbing outdoors. However, optic fiber lines stayed hot, and Chicagoans still took to their computers and email accounts to stay in touch with the outside world.

Lastly, Bill mentioned that while most buildings themselves may be relatively accessible and easy to navigate, getting to and entering those buildings is a common obstacle that architects typically overlook. Entry doors should be easy to locate, especially when buildings are a uniform material. This applies not only to the blind and visually impaired community but also for wheelchair users. How does it make sense that a building will be accessible, but its approach won’t be?


The message is that architects must reconsider the physical limits of their buildings; the approach is just as important as the building itself.

Later this winter, I plan to dive deeper into the story of the Alderman Arena Building and discuss with CHI their strategy for making this project accessible. How will it go beyond ADA?

Stay up to date with my research by following the Kompas Fellows on Instagram @KompasFellowship

This month I met with two particularly incredible individuals to discuss their perspectives about architectural accessibility and housing. We spoke about everything from user experience to sustainability to government regulations. The dialogue was quite revealing - architects do have a huge role in creating accessible/affordable housing opportunities, but it takes a lot of effort.


Trish Girdwood, the Accessibility Specialist at Landon Bone Baker Architects, posits that while federally funded projects involve more strict accessibility codes than non-government funded projects, this does not mean that overall the level of inclusivity is higher. For example, heavy windows, small door widths, and doorknobs present significant issues for many people, but even the strictest regulations in Chicago do not address the need for reconsideration.


So, while the code has not required levers to be installed on floors other than the 1st, LBBA was advocated for and received client approval to install lever handles on all of the floors, demonstrating that just because someone may not be wheelchair bound, does not mean that they may not benefit from a similar detail. Door levers now a company standard. 

Over the past month, I made several new connections with disabled architects, affordable/accessible housing consumers, joined another disability rights advocacy collective, and began volunteering at the Blind Service Association. While I could dive deeper into each new relationship, perhaps I will speak specifically about a few architectural lessons I learned that left a strong impact on my design sensibilities. 

Kompas Fellowship | Ellis Wills-Begley

To follow up on the conversation about the Alderman John Arena Building in Jefferson Park, I will be meeting with a member from NFAH to discuss their efforts to create some of the first affordable accessible housing opportunities in Chicago. (Lindsey LaPointe, one of the directors, reiterated that unless Alderman Arena is re-elected, it is uncertain whether the building will be realized.) Throughout this month, my main goal is to ask developers and consumers questions about funding for housing projects, and what happens when developers chose to pay the opt-out fee, or “fee-in-lieu.” As Cathleen O’Brien and Adam Ballard are experts in housing policy, I expect that their insight will reveal some hidden tendencies and issues. Lastly, asking how architects can do to improve the affordability and accessibility will remain a focal point of conversation.

Mayoral Candidate Forum – Hosted by Chicago Housing Initiative

Ellis' Blog

January 2019

Ellis' Blog

September 2018


Ellis' Blog

November 2018

Inside the office, several Myefski employees demonstrated their familiarity in architectural accessibility and codes, and have supported my research in several ways. The MA staff has involved me in assembling accessibility details for new and future projects as well as the design of accessible units for a student housing project. Additionally, employees have lent detailed explanations of current codes and requirements and have shown how they are integrated in larger projects. 

Kompas Fellowship | Ellis Wills-Begley

Ellis' blog

Stay up to date with my research by following the Kompas Fellows on Instagram @KompasFellowship

The global call for independent living is loud, clear, and is being amplified by the work done by activists and allies here in Chicago. At Access Living’s annual report meeting in early December, two things left a strong impact on my understanding of the global housing issue and reaffirmed why it’s so critical. Firstly, one individual from Japan was awarded for his work with the Machu Independent Living Center in Japan, as well as his contributions to the World Independent Living Network. It seems obvious that similar networks would appear within a city or a region, even a state, but now it is evident that the need for affordable accessible housing is so great that organizations across the nation and globe have joined forces to collaborate on strategies and solutions.


These global communities have extended boundaries and now meet annually at the Global Independent Living Summit, which was started by the US National Council on Independent Living (NCIL). I plan to learn more about how housing issues differ from country to country, and what Chicago can learn and share at future summits.

Only four weeks into the Kompas Fellowship, I could not feel more supported or stimulated by my new surroundings. Chicago has an enormous and powerful disabled community, including centers such as Access Living, Chicago Lighthouse, and organizations such as ADAPT and YPC. Over the past month I have connected with various groups, designers, and individuals to learn more about current issues within architectural accessibility and disability rights. 

Images: A growing collection of projects that exceed current standards of accessibility. (Left to right: Ed Roberts Campus, Center for Veterans in Higher Education, Access Living, Gallaudet University, Shirley Ryan Abilitylab)

The first time I went to the Blind Service Association, Sally Cooper gave me a tour of the various rooms in their space, and immediately I noticed something about their signage. Opposed to ADA requirements, all the room numbers and names were not at a standing “eye-level,” but rather at Sally’s “eye-level,” she said, which is at the level of her hands. Not only were these signs placed at “eye-level,” they were also on the door itself, directly above the door handle. That way, when you reach for the handle, you know what room you’re entering without having to look in two places.


For sighted people, it would make sense for signage to be visible at the level of gaze, but for the blind and visually impaired, this type of signage must be in a location that is intuitive for you. When Sally was touring me around the space, she was leading me, not the other way around. Without visual signage, she uses the silent hum of the copying machine, sound of people typing in the computer lab, and so on, to orient herself within the space. If this is another example of way-finding based on acoustic cues, how could architects take this a step further to add (or subtract) audible landmarks within a complex space? I hope to learn a lot more from her this week. 

Two partners from LCM Architects, a local firm specializing in accessible design and consulting, lent their perspectives concerning the design of the Access Living building, a local center for independent living. Thanks to the time allocated to the Kompas Fellowship, I learned about numerous design elements and processes that increase the inclusivity of the space, which can only be understood through conversation and experience.

Stay up to date with my research by following the Kompas Fellows on Instagram @KompasFellowship

Ellis' Blog

December 2018

Kompas Fellowship | Ellis Wills-Begley

I am honored to be a part of the MA team as a Kompas Fellow. Before I started, I had no idea how much my skills, interests, and passions would overlap, and how much this firm would encourage direct experiences as the dominant form of learning. 

Kompas Fellowship | Ellis Wills-Begley

Last week I was familiar with only a few social organizations in Chicago that advocate for affordable and accessible housing, and now I can’t seem to keep track of them fast enough.