Consultant, Wood Plus Design
Advocate, Disabled In Action
of Metropolitan New York
Elizabeth, New Jersey
Jim Davis uses his architectural education as a consultant, designer, disability activist, teacher, and writer. These days, his design work is mostly focused on research, consulting, and advocacy on universal design issues, on advanced detailing of architectural woodworking, and on the creation of innovative furniture. He has lectured on owner-designed-and-built houses at the Guest Lecture Series, Pratt Institute School of Architecture, his alma mater. At New York University, he presented his research on accessibility, public space, and universal design.
"TV shows and sitcoms present a false image of the architect. There is a disconnection between the imagined prestige of the job and the reality of it."
- James L. Davis
Jim has published articles in various disability journals including The Ragged Edge (formerly The Disability Rag) and is preparing scholarly pieces on postmodern architecture and universal design, universal design in historic and political contexts, and architectural detailing and cost considerations in universal design. Recently, he has been developing wall unit designs and a new type of cabinet that he hopes to bring to market.
When Jim was thirteen years old, he became fascinated with the unique construction of the house of a good friend. He liked to explore the house and try to figure out how the pieces fit together. His interest in the field of design was sparked also by two trips he made as a youngster. On a visit to the Capitol in Washington, D.C., he was allowed to go up to the colonnade around the base of the dome. The second trip took him to the World's Fair in Montreal, where he toured Moshe Safdie's Habitat '67 and was inspired by Buckminster Fuller's transparent geodesic design of the United States Pavilion.
He received little information from high school counselors about pursuing this career interest. In fact, he perused the guidance counselor's filing cabinet on his own and checked out a folder from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). At that time, he was trying to decide between art and architecture, finally resolving the issue in favor of architecture: "you could starve doing art." But as he has discovered, there is no guarantee of financial security in architecture, either. "TV shows and sitcoms present a false image of the architect. There is a disconnection between the imagined prestige of the job and the reality of it."
Disability was not a significant personal issue during Jim's college years. After graduating from high school in 1969, he studied full time at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, for three years and then worked on a vacation house design-build job, studied part-time at the Boston Architectural Center (BAC), and took the solar energy course at the AIA Research Corporation. In 1984, Jim received his Bachelor of Architecture from Pratt.
In 1976, while studying at the BAC, and inspired by a friendship with someone who used a wheelchair, Jim did a research project and slide lecture on the not-very-accessible Boston subway system for one of his classes. Later, at Pratt, while working on the redesign of a public library, he realized that wheelchair users had no fire safety escape from the second floor, so he incorporated a ramp that used the otherwise wasted space underneath for outdoor bike parking. The professor, unaware of access issues, was not happy with this design solution. The only time Jim remembers disability being raised in college courses was a description of a system of knotted ropes by a professor who had designed it for the use of his blind grandfather, who resided in an English castle.
Although he had "physical anomalies as a child," Jim was only diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (AS), a progressive joint disease related to arthritis, in 1987, when he was thirty-six years old. "I did not conceptualize my early limitations as disabling or think of myself as a person with a disability. I just understood that there were some things I couldn't do, and one thing I wasn't allowed to do.
In Boy Scout camp, one of my goals was to get the 'mile swim award.' I could swim easily on my back and float endlessly, but due to the limited rotational range of motion in my neck, I could not do the breaststroke. Unfortunately, the breaststroke was the only swimming style that 'counted' on the first day test. Not only did I not get to try the mile swim, I wasn't allowed to even approach the lakeshore. This is a good example of what I later came to understand as an attitudinal barrier or policy impairment."
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jim worked in the design studios of Stanley Jay Friedman, Inc. (known for Brueton and Bonaventure furniture designs) and the environmental design office of graphic artist Milton Glaser. In both offices, and in the office of Geoffrey Hassman in the early 1990s, he did tasks ranging from design assistance to detailing, specifications, production of working drawings, and construction management. In the Glaser office he prepared all of the documents for the Trattoria Del Arte restaurant opposite Carnegie Hall, and did much of the design development and drawing work on the Franklin Mills Mall (MG collaboration with Cambridge Seven Architects), and for the Grand Union superstores.
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Since the early nineties, Jim's work has been primarily project management and, occasionally, the advanced level detailing of special projects in architectural woodworking. The detailing work involves carrying out the designer's intentions to a finished product. It involves opportunities to tweak designs for functionality, including accessibility. His other specialty, interior construction estimating, has given him an invaluable opportunity to see many designs by many architects each year, and to observe how issues of compliance with access codes, and other universal design questions, play out in the real world. Jim has also acted as a pro bono advisor to a student with mobility disability, who is negotiating accessibility improvements at a local university. He was able to use his architectural detailing experience to show how one entrance improvement bid at over $50,000 could be done for ten percent of that cost. He is now also working to add universal design language to the university's future architectural contracts, to clarify that this is a client who wants maximum accessibility.
It was not until the late nineties that Jim developed hip problems, making it painful to climb stairs. He threatened to sue under the ADA to get a key to the locked elevators to AMTRAK at Penn Station and began to identify as a person with a disability. At that time, AMTRAK had illegal discriminatory criteria that the elevators could only be used by a person who used a device for ambulation. His disability identity emerged more clearly once Jim began reading disability studies literature and got involved in activism. He was the founder of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Penn Station and is the co-chair of the Public Facilities Access Committee of Disabled In Action Metropolitan New York (DIAMNY).
He attended Designing for the 21st Century, the first International Conference on Universal Design in 1998 in New York, where he was immersed in universal design, and then the Society for Disability Studies conference in 1999, where he heard presentations on several aspects of disability and disability studies in a number of universities. For the present, Jim's design work is limited to research. He is exploring the relationship of universal design to project management, to detailing, and to the language in architectural contracts.
Recently, he was able to solve an accessibility advocacy issue. The problem was the lack of access when the elevators to the train platform broke down in the new Penn Station. Platform space was too limited for a backup set of elevators to be added. Jim noticed that the breakdown point is usually the doors on the elevators, not the lift mechanism. This observation led him to suggest that new platform elevators in the planned expanded area of the station have doors on two sides, so that the second set can function when the primary doors are awaiting repair. Although elevators often have doors on a second side to accommodate various floor plans or level changes, his design solution might be the first time that a second set of doors is used to avoid elevator down time, and to maintain accessibility for all people. He wants to continue to bring the designer's imagination to accessibility design problems.
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