The Virgin Island Daily News, article by TANYA MANNES

ST. JOHN - Students from the Rhode Island School of Design visited St. John this weekend as part of a project to make the Estate Concordia resort more user-friendly.

The 15 students have been given the assignment to update plans for the resort's common areas - including a pavilion, a restaurant and an art center - making them accessible to all guests, including those with disabilities.


Image: Rhode Island School of Design student Irina Kozlovskaya checks out the water-conserving shower in a room at Concordia Resort during a project to update the facilities to make them more user-friendly; Photos Special to The Daily News.


The students also are tasked with finding ways for people with limited mobility or poor vision to enjoy area attractions such as beaches and park trails.

"The students' role is to look at all the missing pieces," said Kat Darula, an adjunct professor at the School of Design who is leading the class along with Rosanne Ramos. The two women, both graduates of the design school, founded Multi: Design for People, a consulting and design firm that specializes in inclusive environments.

The students' goal this weekend was to collect information about what already exists at the resort. They must find ways to conserve water and energy and use natural materials to bring about their vision while respecting the topography, terrain and culture.

"They are identifying the design opportunities," Ramos said.

Ultimately, they hope to develop innovative strategies for accessibility that can be used at other properties.

Guided by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, hotels and resorts are becoming increasingly sensitive to the needs of disabled, elderly and mobility-impaired travelers, such as pregnant women. The concept also makes good business sense: The Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality estimates its market spends $13.6 billion annually on vacations.

On St. John, the 50-acre Concordia resort, which so far comprises 20 "eco-tents" and studios, began taking shape in the late 1990s. Developer Stanley Selengut founded the 27-year-old Maho Bay Camps and Harmony Studios, two eco-resorts on the north shore of St. John.

The idea for the design class came about when Selengut met Mickey Ackerman, head of the school's Industrial Design Department, this summer. The plan evolved so that Darula and Ramos would lead a studio class in which students would help flesh out Selengut's vision and adapt the building plans drawn by St. John architect Glen Speer.

"It was a really good match," said Maggie Day, general manager of all the Maho Bay Resorts. "We're not a large corporation with a strict timetable. We have plenty of time to implement these kinds of ideas."

Construction on the common areas will begin next year.

The class, "An Inclusive 21st Century Resort," attracted students like Mikki Tam, 31, who is studying interior architecture at the graduate level.

"To me, interior architecture is always about the human experience, not just the structural design," Tam said. "It is a challenge to create a comfortable experience for all users."

The students already have some ideas: building wheelchair-accessible boardwalks on some of the park trails, for example.

They also want to make some changes to the water-saving showers. They found that the shower requires two hands to operate it - potentially a problem for a person with a disability such as arthritis.

Student Amber Ghory, 22, wants to make sure people are able to navigate the vast network of staircases and boardwalks.

"I notice that they have reflectors on the trees, but a guest who is vision-impaired may not be able to see those at night," Ghory said. "It may be that we need something more obvious to help people find their way."

The students will make recommendations, accompanied by 3-D models, by the end of the year. Many expect to stay involved with the project beyond the duration of the class.

"Hopefully, we can design some elements that can be used elsewhere," Julia Membrino, 20, said.


Image: Photos Special to The Daily News Frances Rivera-Myers, a Rhode Island School of Design student, examines a bedframe during an information-gathering mission at Concordia Resort of St. John.