Access Development Corporation
East Providence, Rhode Island
Joe Del Vecchio has earned his belief in himself and in his ability to accomplish his goals. As a young man, he says, he lacked focus and direction. "My first shot at college I think I had a 0.7 GPA." During a stint with the Rhode Island National Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, in the mid-1970s, while on active duty, Joe was disabled in an automobile accident. During his rehabilitation, Joe discovered strength and perseverance that has aided him in becoming the successful architect and designer he is today.
"This equipment [computer aided design (CAD)] came along at just the right time for me. It levels the playing field for me and allows me to compete fairly with my colleagues."
- Joseph Del Vecchio
Joe is a registered architect in the State of Rhode Island. His practice is focused on high intensity architecture, especially in the fields of hospitality and medicine. "High intensity architecture means, to me, that in every layout you cannot travel very far before you are required to address a situation that is critical to the project's requirements. I think my disability, the fact that I use a wheelchair for mobility and consequently have to think carefully and well about getting around, gives me a real advantage in this area. For example, in laying out a procedure room, everything has to be exactly located so that you get a smooth flow from a to b to c. This allows the doctors and nurses to work at maximum functionality. In designing such a space, it helps that I've spent a lot of time thinking about thresholds and steps, you know, thinking about the flow and how to avoid barriers rather than create them."
Joe has worked for dozens of restaurants and medical clinics in the Providence area, everywhere from Spike's Junkyard Dog franchises to the Urologic Surgeons of New England home office. The way he works is first to "put all my initial thoughts on paper, real down and dirty thumbnail stuff, and then I '3D model' everything. This is the only way to catch any mistakes before you make them."
Joe is an adept and early explorer in the realm of computer-aided design. In about 1991, Joe and Christina, a fellow architect and also his wife, became involved with an early CAD program, Sonata, and realized the potential efficiencies of using the software. The time spent mastering the program, not inconsiderable, was more than compensated for by the time saved from inking drawings.
Their interest in CAD work continues; they're now working with virtual reality modeling language, VRML. This gives them additional advantages, such as the ability to check the feasibility of various designs and communicate works-in-process to clients by way of the Internet.
They have recently created a "virtual access model" at the web site for Shake-A-Leg, a non-profit organization that brings sailing and other recreational opportunities to people with spinal cord injuries. The VRML model presents a simulated experience of dealing with the kinds of barriers that the ADA Accessibility Guidelines are written to address. The model seeks to "improve communication and understanding" among some of the stakeholders who often find themselves in conflict or in court seeking to resolve accessibility issues. "Some of these cases are based on simple misunderstandings that might have been averted if people had been able to check out a potential site and explore various solutions to access barriers. It's too expensive to build a model of all possible site problems and solutions, but a technological fix in a virtual setting is feasible."
Joe feels that the technological revolution of the last ten or fifteen years has benefited him enormously. "This equipment came along at just the right time for me. It levels the playing field for me and allows me to compete fairly with my colleagues."
Joe discovered his propensity for the arts and talent for drawing in early boyhood. After his injury, still in his mid-twenties, he decided to give his early talents a chance to develop by going back to college. "I basically begged my way back in. I enrolled in fine arts at Providence College and focused on sculpture." Father Adrian Dabash, who'd been one of Joe's teachers and was himself an artist, encouraged Joe to enroll in design courses, telling him that if he wanted to have any influence over where his sculptures were placed, he should study architecture. Joe went on to finish a double degree, Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Architecture, graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 1983.
When he started back to school, Joe had no idea how challenging a studio education would be. "I didn't know about the hours, the studio crunch time. It seemed relentless! But I was a man with a mission." The sixty-hour work weeks in studio were difficult to balance with the time Joe needed to spend on self-care, tending his body. The architecture school itself was accessible, but much of the campus, built on the side of a hill, was not.
Because the industrial design department was in his building, Joe became closely acquainted with Marc Harrison, a professor in the department who became a mentor. "Marc recently passed away of Lou Gehrig's disease. He was a great industrial designer and the disability community will miss him. Marc was the kind of guy who retained a childlike sense of fun and the more fun he was having the more creative he became."
While Joe was still a student at Providence College, he got involved in designing a device that might function as a lift for a set of stairs in a museum being planned on campus. "This contraption was made of channels, sliders, and boxes and would be driven by a hydraulic lift, the kind a filling station uses. Later, when I was at RISD, Marc Harrison and I and some others built a prototype that was in the faculty show of 1983. It was a lot of fun to build and gave me a good appreciation of industrial design issues."
After graduating, Joe began to look for a job. He discovered that there was not one accessible architectural office where he could intern. Around this time, Joe and Christina married. She was also an architectural intern. They decided to set up their own program with an established architect working as an outside contractor. Joe says that the local Registration Board regarded this arrangement with some suspicion, but as they were unable to suggest any feasible alternative, and he was determined to "keep on rolling," they accepted the situation. Joe and Christina named their internship the Access Development Corporation and it continues in business today.
Joe likes to sail competitively and is very involved with the Shake-A-Leg organization. "I am never so aware of my surroundings as when I am out in a boat, racing along, working with the wind. It's an elemental feeling, hard to describe."
"What I learned from Marc, and am always trying to retain, is my feeling of, in some sense, being a student, and remaining open and curious to whatever is happening around me. One of my teachers at RISD, Warren Luther, said 'as your knowledge grows, your ignorance grows exponentially' and I feel that's true. The more I learn the more there is to learn."
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