Allegedly, literary critic and writer Dorothy Parker always answered the telephone with the tart quip, “What fresh Hell is this?” Many facilities managers and building owners have felt that same sense of dread when it comes to universal design. However, the fears and concerns surrounding accessibility are unfounded. Facilities professionals that have embraced the principles of universal design are creating buildings that suit a diverse range of end-users.
What is universal design? Though often linked with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), universal design is a much broader concept. Universal design is building design and management that is accessible, comfortable, and welcoming to all people. Lighting, entrances, flooring – every aspect of the environment is designed to suit every possible end-user.
Applying the Principles
San Diego-based Interwork Institute within the College of Education at San Diego State University was formed to create environments and opportunities for the inclusion of all individuals, including those with disabilities, within its community. The institute is expanding its headquarters, and the new addition will be planned under the principles of universal design. “I want to learn the physical aspects related to universal design that include retrofitting of existing space, adding new space, and making sure it is fully integrated,” says Fred McFarlane, professor, San Diego State University, and co-director at Interwork Institute.
Founded in 1989, Interwork Institute originally focused on assisted technology for people with disabilities and its graduate education program, which prepared students to work in the field of rehabilitation. “Based on what our learning is as an educational institution, we want to do more with regard to the general public and the building community,” says McFarlane. The institute’s new addition will allow the organization to reach out to the facilities management community and widen its focus on adapting workplaces to suit all people. Its existing building, built in the 1970s, is 14,000 square feet, and as part of a modernization, 12,000 square feet will be added.
“Universal design is not just about physical access. It is fully integrated throughout the building,” says McFarlane. The newly integrated headquarters will feature elevator access to all floors, restrooms that accommodate a diverse community, lighting and signage to aid in wayfinding and orientation, and easy-to-use doors.
The term universal design was first used in the 1970s, and the concept of design for all became more common in the late 1980s. In small pockets around the world, the movement of universal design took root. In western Europe, Japan, and the United States, building planners and professionals first recognized the benefits of barrier-free designs and the growing needs of an aging population. Traditional building design could be an impediment to equality by limiting access. Instead of having special accommodations for people with disabilities, such as alternative entrances, progressive facilities and design professionals desired buildings that could be designed with equal access for all.
“I am beginning to appreciate that the ongoing decision-makers are the ones that really make the difference,” says Valerie Fletcher, executive director, Adaptive Environments, Boston. Adaptive Environments, a non-profit agency based in Boston, studies the role of design in social equity. Ranging from urban design to the design of information, the agency serves as a clearinghouse for building professionals.
The group, founded in 1978, recognizes the critical influence of facilities management leadership. It will expand its role among facilities managers, including tracking progressive facilities management programs that focus on universal design. Currently, the group is in the midst of raising funding to improve its website in order to provide models of successful projects and details for spec writing.
Adaptive Environments provides consultation for the building community, offering education for the features that are the best practices in each environment. “Our mission is to advocate for design what works for everyone and to provide information and assistance, where appropriate, for anyone who is interested in pursuing this goal,” says Fletcher. The organization has a wide array of images of successful projects that have been created under the principles of universal design for education purposes. Adds Fletcher, “People are still in need of convincing that [universal design] doesn’t look unattractive or odd.”
For example, the group is collaborating on the redesign of three subway stations in Boston, as well as working with government agencies and the development community to incorporate universal design into Boston’s first new neighborhood in 150 years. Adjacent to Boston Harbor, the commercial neighborhood will feature the new convention center, an art museum, hotels, and office facilities – all designed for maximum access. Adaptive Environments is also in negotiation with Boston’s Equity Office to work on the revitalization of some of the city’s most historic and beautiful waterfront properties.
“We would love to engage the facilities management world in thinking about human-centered design as the hallmark of a quality company,” says Fletcher, “It is not about rules; it is about thinking; it is about framing your choices with the user experience in mind.”
Born with cerebral palsy, San Diego architect W. Stephen McCarthy has had a lifetime of experience with disability and his experience has inspired him to create environments accessible to everyone. With his partner, architect Bob Evans, McCarthy formed Equal Access, an ADA consulting architecture firm six years ago. “We created a practice that works exclusively in the area of accessibility consulting and it lead us to the broader issues of universal design, which is now just starting to take hold in the industry,” says McCarthy.
“Sometimes, we have a hard time getting owners and facilities managers to think beyond meeting the minimum requirements of the law,” adds McCarthy. The biggest issue the firm grapples with is that the concept of universal design is harder to understand than simply following a building standard. “If properly done, you are not aware of it,” he notes. Classic examples are lever hardware and ramps, which are accessible to everyone.
Space Use – Fully, Effortlessly
“Over the last five years there has been much more awareness of what [universal design] can do for the broad range of people and they can see it is not a terrible thing,” adds Evans. He believes the concerns that universal design will increase building costs are beginning to dissipate, and facilities professionals are beginning to educate themselves about the benefits of universal design. One of the main benefits of universal design, also known as lifespan design, is accommodating our aging population in the coming years.
Currently, Equal Access is reviewing the design drawings of self-service ticket machines for several airports. “It has been a struggle, but now universal design is being used in more projects. We are getting many more questions from building owners and designers on how to incorporate it,” says Evans.
McFarlane equates the concept of universal design with the term, “visitability,” the ability to use a space fully and effortlessly. “Create your environment for all the individuals who will be accessing the space. Universal design is for kids, for parents with strollers, for older people, for someone with a short-term injury using crutches,” he explains.
As the education process continues among building owners and facilities managers, more facilities will be built or retrofitted with the end-users in mind. At Harvard University, for example, several historic buildings have been modified to make the university more welcoming. The growing acceptance of universal design marks increased innovation in the future of user-friendly spaces.
“I appreciate having a partner like Equity; it has repercussions far greater than I had imagined. We want models that will change what we think of as good design and good management over the next 100 years,” says Fletcher.
These projects that are early adopters of universal design are sparking change and changing the way we think about the built environment.
Regina Raiford Babcock (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior editor at Buildings magazine.