The guiding edge: designing a camp for the blind

After a wildfire swept through Enchanted Hills Camp in 2017, the community is determined to rebuild better than ever

For a person with vision impairment, a groove in the pavement, the rise of a curb, or the bump of stones lining a path is a map forward. These lines, maybe gone unnoticed or taken for granted by someone with sight, can serve as a guide for the blind as they move about in the built environment.

This was one of the most essential elements that architect and project manager Helen Schneider and her team learned on their first visit to Enchanted Hills, a camp and retreat in Napa, California, operated by LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Since 1950, Enchanted Hills has been a haven for blind and visually impaired children, teens, adults, seniors, those who are deaf-blind, and all of their families. Situated on 311 rolling acres, the camp provides its visitors with a place to explore, learn, play, and gain confidence in their surroundings. Cared for by a tight-knit community, the camp was made of a patchwork of quirky buildings, many raised by volunteers over the years.

Devastatingly, in 2017, wildfire swept through Mount Veeder in Napa, destroying the lower camp and over 700 trees. The camp lost 20 structures—almost half of all buildings on the site. Rather than losing heart, the community was empowered to rebuild Enchanted Hills Camp better than ever. Our San Francisco studio’s Design Director, Peter Pfau, heard about the camp’s rebuilding efforts through a family friend. Initially, Helen and our team were hired to assess the fire damage for insurance purposes, but over time, new projects presented themselves. We were delighted to submit a proposal for, and ultimately win, the masterplan.

Map of the camp with the proposed fire rebuild plan.
This map of the camp shows our team's draft of the fire rebuild plan.

New Pathways

We started by evaluating the main pathways through the camp. Settled on a steep ravine, the camp is accessed by a road that winds down through the center and back up. Historically, this has been the main path for both cars and pedestrians. With this, we quickly realized its limitations.

“It doesn’t adequately serve the users in that it is this really wide road that is not well-defined on either side,” says Helen, describing how the edge of the road dissolves into the brush and grass. “A lot of the effort with our masterplan is creating cane-detectable paths throughout camp that will provide an accessible route from top to bottom.”

Thinking about what made a path detectable brought us back to the concept of the guiding edge. “We’ve talked a lot about how to define an edge in paving and how to think about paths and their intersections,” she says.

An edge can take many forms. For any part of the pathways made with poured concrete, we plan to incorporate a raised metal edge. We’re also looking at colored asphalt, a durable material that’s used in Yosemite National Park, and with a slightly raised metal edge, it will help keep a defined shape as nature grows in. The edge can also be a line of stones or plantings.

The important common feature for all these paths is the width. At 48 inches across—and no more—the width matches the sweep of a cane. The cane will be able to cross to both edges, allowing easier navigation along sinuous routes.

These new pedestrian pathways will triple the amount of space that blind campers who are navigating by cane will be able to explore.

The treehouse will be built within a circle of trees that were scarred by the wildfire. The black and white image shows the plan for Chimehenge.

Guided by Sound

While a guide can be tactile, it can also be auditory. The Enchanted Hills Camp Nature Trail, an earthen pathway through the woods, is occasionally interrupted by PVC pipes embedded lengthwise across the ground. When a person’s cane comes across one of these pipes it makes a plunking sound, different than the muffled sound it creates against the forest floor. This signifies a marker and indicates to the person there is a station off to the side where they can learn with braille about their surroundings.

“We’ll have these landscaped follies, moments to gather or retreat along the path,” explains Helen.

Right now, we’re working on a spot we’re calling “Chimehenge”—twelve sets of five gigantic chimes, each set at an octave on the pentatonic scale, donated by the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The chimes will be positioned along a circular path 18’ in diameter and equipped with a mallet so they can be rung by visitors, creating an acoustic playground in the natural surroundings. Benches will be arranged on the inside of the circle, creating an ideal spot for campers to gather. The camp leaders are also excited about a treehouse that will be constructed in the middle of a fairy ring of trees that were scarred from the wildfire.

The bathhouse is designed with knowable navigability, featuring guiding edges around the pool and inside the changing and showering areas.

The Bathhouse

One of the first buildings we’ve had a hand in designing at the camp is the bathhouse. Keeping with the guiding edge, we have designed the concrete surrounding the bathhouse to feature an edge that follows the entrance gate to the line of the pool. “Visitors can follow that edge and know the water will be on the left and the bathhouse will be on the right,” Helen adds.

Inside the bathhouse we’ve applied this same kind of thinking. With two different floor tiles—one more textured and one less textured—we indicate what part of the bathhouse a person is standing in. The more-textured tiles are being used in the “wet areas,” or the toilets, sinks, and showers; the less-textured tiles indicate the circulation zone where people can move about the space. What is unique for us, when it comes to a project like this, is that we’re not creating forms and shapes for the sake of aesthetics alone; rather, we’re thinking about straight-forward navigability.

These tactile indications are also in the storage cubbies in the bathhouse. Each cubby will feature an embossed picture to tell a person which cubby they have. With a total of 60 cubbies, we also had to think about how to find a cubby in an easy way. For every group of five vertical cubbies, we will have a recessed notch that will help notify people which bank of cubbies they are in.

In architecture, daylighting is an essential component of the design. It is just as important for this community. Not everyone who is visually impaired is blind, and some people may have sensitivity to high contrasts and bright light.

“We don’t want to create moments of glare, so we have softer light,” says Helen. Our team also took this into consideration when selecting materials. The concrete we’re using is an interval color that closely matches the soil of the site, and the roof of the bathhouse will have a lower reflectivity.

Design Director Peter Pfau demonstrates the tactile model with the clients, LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin, Board President Chris Downey, and EHC Visioning Committee Member Jerry Kuns.

Tactile Topography

How does an architect communicate design plans to a client with visual impairment? It was a creative opportunity we readily took on.

Thinking about textures and lines, we built a tactile model so we could share our plans with our client by touch. We started by building a simple topographical model out of cardboard. Proposed new buildings were covered in sandpaper, while existing buildings were smooth. It took a few iterations and tests to figure out how to make the model legible to our clients. We experimented with several materials to symbolize the pathways and landed on using a cord to demonstrate the winding trails.

“LightHouse was really excited to experience the camp this way,” says Helen. “They’ve walked the site, but to get a whole picture of the topography and surrounding areas…this was kind of a unique opportunity for them. We now have a legible tool to use with the clients and their board.”

The tactile model will eventually be milled and positioned at the camp so new visitors can use it as a map.

The bungalows sit in a grove of trees with a wide green lawn
Canvas bungalows replace the fire-destroyed cabins.

Learning Moments

Conversations and workshops with the campers and the community were essential. Multiple site visits, including visits to other youth camps in California, and interviews with stakeholders informed each part of our design. We also created a survey that was shared with hundreds of people from LightHouse and the greater California blind community.

One of the most insightful interviews for Helen was with a professor from Ohio who visited the camp. Helen sat down to chat with her in a room off the dining hall and asked her two contrasting questions: What places make you feel the safest? What places make you feel unsafe?

“She described safety being a place where she can run, and the beach being one of those places,” says Helen. “The water is your edge and you have the slope of the sand that is also providing spatial knowledge of where you are in relationship to the sound of the sea.”

When they talked about places that made her feel unsafe, she described the dining hall they met in. It is a wide-open space with a lot of acoustically reflective surfaces making it difficult to orient, especially when dozens of people are talking, and their voices are bouncing in all directions.

Helen says since their conversation, the camp has actually installed acoustic panels in the ceiling of the dining hall.

In addition to the masterplan and bathhouse, our team helped with design and construction of several critical structures that enable Enchanted Hills to continue offering annual camps for hundreds of blind and visually impaired visitors while the masterplan is underway. These structures include canvas bungalows to replace fire-destroyed cabins, a storage structure for equipment, and a pool shade structure. The demand for camp is so great that, last summer, Enchanted Hills hosted its largest teen session ever.

For Helen, this project has opened her up to a new way of thinking about the built environment.

“It is easy to look at Americans with Disabilities Act and accessibility codes and see them as a set of restrictions,” she says. “Working with Enchanted Hills Camp has given me a new perspective on how we experience and engage with space. Architecturally, this presents new opportunities to enrich our built environment. If we bring this level of attention to tactility and acoustics to all of our projects, it would enhance the quality of the spaces we all share. ”


LightHouse is committed to rebuilding the camp stronger and better than ever, which is why it’s launched a campaign to pay for the fire rebuild. Returning the camp to its original capacity and improving accessibility and natural beauty will enhance the lives of its visitors for years to come.

LightHouse is participating in #GivingTuesday today to raise funds for the rebuild of Enchanted Hills. Click here to learn more:

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