Robert Nichols photo

Robert Nichols

Nichols Design Associates
Washington, D.C.


Robert Nichols founded Nichols Design Associates, Inc., in Washington, D.C., in July 1993. As an architect, he specializes in universal design and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility requirements. His expertise includes building surveys and the design of barrier-free environments for major governmental, commercial, institutional, and residential clients.

"I think it is very important to work with designers, architects, politicians, and advocates for people with disabilities to build a bridge to foreign countries in order to positively influence disability policy."
- Robert Nichols

In 1995, Robert conducted a major study of the New York City subway system to ascertain acoustical accessibility of key stations for patrons with hearing and visual impairments. Robert, who is hearing impaired, worked together with an acoustical engineer to videotape and audiotape the effects of noise in the environment and then generated practical solutions for decreasing the echo and vibration associated with the running of the trains. The research was prepared for the 129th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, which had a special session on the ADA. He is currently consulting with a large architectural firm for an ADA access survey throughout Maryland of the fast food services of Dunkin Donuts, Baskin Robbins, and Bagels To Go.

Robert has carried out design and survey projects for many other organizations, mostly in the public arena. These include Union Station in Washington, D. C, Hopedale Town Hall, in Massachusetts; and the Mystic Seaport Museum, in Mystic, Connecticut.

Prior to establishing his own business, he worked as an accessibility specialist at the Access Board in Washington, D. C., revising and updating guidelines related to telecommunications for the deaf. He also prepared telephone and mail responses to typical questions.

Robert has profound hearing loss from hemolytic neonatal disease. His parents did not want to send him away to a special school for the deaf, so he grew up in the hearing world, mainstreamed at a public school just a few blocks away from his home in Princeton, New Jersey. Robert remembers attending as many classes as he could with an art teacher with a special talent for connecting with children. From these classes he gained the inspiration to try his hand at anything and everything, to draw, paint, sculpt, model. He valued this learning immensely, but missed having peers who were disabled. "I had no friends who were disabled or hearing impaired. I was an isolated deaf person."

Robert's mother was a talented pianist, having attended the Julliard School, while his father was an organic chemist with his own laboratory. Robert feels he absorbed from his parent's diverse backgrounds an interest in both creative and practical arts. "I found I had a talent for seeing things in particular ways, and representing this vision pictorially."

When he was eleven or twelve, his father hired architect J. Robert Hillier (now a principal of The Hillier Group, a large, nationally known architectural firm) to design a new laboratory for him. "I visited the firm to see the model and drawings and soaked up the ambiance between my father and Bob Hillier." Fortuitously, when he was fifteen and in a youth employment program, Robert got a part-time job in Hillier's firm.

Robert studied pre-med at the University of Vermont for two years, then changed his mind and returned to the arts. A new course his junior year, History of Architecture and Preservation in Vermont, reawakened his youthful passion. The professor, a member of the Historical Board of Vermont, asked if Robert would like to help save a 100-year-old cabin in the Green Mountains. Without assistance, Robert drove to the cabin, measured the entire structure, and prepared the final drawings for the report. The professor not only gave him an A, but encouraged him to apply to the School of Architecture at Cornell University.

Cornell provided Robert with a wonderful education, but there were many difficulties. For one studio, Robert had been up late several nights in a row preparing for final reviews and juries. During class, he fell sound asleep and had to be awakened by a fellow student. (Robert says this is not an uncommon event in final reviews, it happens regularly, to disabled and non-disabled students alike.) He felt disoriented and had a hard time communicating with the reviewers. The regulations of Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act were just beginning to be implemented around the country. Robert went to the campus office of the new program for students with disabilities and asked that an interpreter be provided to him for reviews and juries. He was initially denied, and had to threaten a court suit to get him limited services.

Although an interpreter was provided, and he had the services of a note taker, Robert was still on his own during classes and studio work. He got along by facing and speaking directly to fellow students and professors. In an urban design studio course with Colin Rowe, a well-known professor and author, Robert was unable to understand his British accent, which Rowe further obscured by smoking cigars. When Robert repeatedly asked for clarification, Rowe said "Don't worry about my speech, watch my hands and my sketches." Robert thought this was some of the best advice he ever received as a student. Professor Rowe made connections between political, social, and economic shifts and new developments in architecture that motivated Robert to read deeply into the history of architecture and continue on at Cornell to earn his master's in architecture.

Photograph of two men looking at an architectural drawing.
Robert presenting the design that he and his intern worked on for a design competition for the city of Buffalo's waterfront.

Description of Photograph:
In this photograph, Robert is standing to the right of an architectural drawing that is displayed on an easel. He is indicating something near the center of the drawing with his right hand. He is holding a piece of paper in his left hand. Standing behind Robert is another man, the mayor of Buffalo, looking at the drawing and listening to Robert. In the right foreground is the edge of a television camera and the hand of the person filming the event.

Robert feels he got a thorough grounding in self-advocacy and disability policy by studying in the hearing world at a time when few if any technological devices were in place. There were only a few TTYs available on campus during his undergraduate years. These days, with widespread e-mail usage and telecommunication devices available as a matter of law to students and others who need them, it's an entirely different experience.

One of Robert's most difficult challenges in his work life is interaction with clients. He estimates that somewhere between seven to nine out of ten clients have "second thoughts" about hiring him because of his hearing impairment. In 1997, he received a cochlear implant from the Johns Hopkins University Hospital. He trains with a therapist every week to improve his skills in hearing and speech, especially to market his business. He said, "Without having a cochlear implant, I cannot do well in my own business and could probably work only in the government."

He feels that international networking is very important, "I won a fellowship cash award from Cornell for my travel research in Italy and in the rest of Europe. I met with several hard of hearing and deaf people, including a few designers who could discuss their country's codes. I realized that architects in Eastern Europe had little sensibility for people with disabilities. I think it is very important to work with designers, architects, politicians, and advocates for people with disabilities to build a bridge to foreign countries in order to positively influence disability policy."

Mentoring has been part of his work as well; "I had a student who is hearing impaired working for me as an intern. In the summer of 1999, he and I worked on a design competition for a waterfront project in Buffalo called 'The New Public Space.' We won an honorable mention and had a great time working as a team." The competition centered on an area between the new hockey arena for the Buffalo Sabres and a historic section of downtown where a World War II battleship and a 1950s Saber fighter plane are located. Robert is married to Elena, a translator and painter he met in Moscow. They have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Michelle.

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