As the HEALTHCARE DESIGN Conference celebrated the kickoff of its 10th year with close to 4,000 attendees at the Phoenix Convention Center, opening remarks stayed focused on the present—most notably the tumultuous business environment for designers and architects as well as healthcare in general.

And as some clarity will be had on Nov. 6 when the country at last finds who will be president in 2013, and with that what direction healthcare reform will take, Debra Levin, president and CEO of The Center for Health Design, reminded attendees of one guarantee: “The need for healthcare is not going to go away, and the act of healthcare can’t happen without a physical space.”

Dan Noble, president of the American Institute of Architects’ Academy of Architecture for Health, later noted that there are reasons for the healthcare design industry to be hopeful, including the Architecture Billings Index up to its highest point in two years, 20,000 jobs in construction and design added in October, and project inquiries on the rise.

Noble further advised that the healthcare design industry’s role in the turbulence as well as the growth to come is to guide clients—perhaps not in brick-and-mortar buildings but instead through establishing new processes and efficiencies.

The conference opening was highlighted by the keynote presentation of Chris Downey, AIA, founder and president, Architecture for the Blind, who shared with attendees how his own personal experience of becoming completely blind has shaped not only his life but his career.

Downey began his presentation by taking the audience through a visual tour of his world. With eyes closed and lights dimmed, attendees listened to steps, clicks, echoes, and traffic in a snippet of the acoustical guides that take Downey through life each day.

“I want you to walk behind eyes that don’t see, or don’t see very well,” he says.

And while healthcare facilities for the blind and visually impaired may do a better job at designing spaces for that specific patient population, Downey reminded that those same patients are visiting other buildings, as well.

“They go for all types of medical care,” he says. “It’s important that we be aware of that as we design our centers.”

Downey says design features should focus on the senses outside of sight that will be heightened for those with visual impairments, like touch and sound, as well as anticipating the way a blind or visually impaired person may move through a space.

For example, Downey says, such patients need the ability to “walk the edge” of a space, using walls or other borders for trajectory. He advises to avoid the clutter that tends to build up in hospital corridors or seating areas off walking paths.

Other messaging systems can be used as well to indicate changes in the space around a person. For example, mark a space by using differing flooring materials for directional cues—a “tap” test can help a visitor establish a grid to use for reference. Or a canopy over a front door can accentuate acoustics and a mat before the entrance can enhance a shift in approach from the sidewalk material.

In closing, Downey says to remember to think about spaces for the blind and visually impaired by not the loss of sight but by the additional use of other senses. And improving the overall experience of a person in those spaces can be accomplished by enhancing these cues through the use of “universal design to provide all this information in a multisensory way,” he says.

After all, he says, they may be minor tweaks and adjustments that don’t cost much at all. “You just have to be aware of it,” he says.

The opening keynote also included an awards presentation for HEALTHCARE DESIGN’s annual Architectural and Interior Design Showcase Citation of Merit awards to NBBJ for its work on both the Massachusetts General Hospital Lunder Building in Boston and the Miami Valley Hospital Heart and Orthopedic Center in Dayton, Ohio.

Awards were also given for HEALTHCARE DESIGN’s 2012 Remodel/Renovation Competition to Hobbs + Black Architects in the Pediatrics category for its work at Tucson Medical Center for Children and to HOK in the Art Program category for Northwestern Memorial Hospital. And a student team from Texas Tech University was honored for its winning submission to the 2012 Collegiate Healthcare Design Competition Award.