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How accessible is your building? Universal design concepts can be combined with your requirements under the ADA to create a building that’s inviting to all.

Universal Design: When to Go Above and Beyond ADA Requirements

Feb. 9, 2024
Universal design concepts deliver full facility access to a broader range of people. Here’s why it can be beneficial to build on ADA’s minimum requirements.

Anyone working with the built environment knows the risks of not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act—namely, that you’re leaving yourself vulnerable to expensive lawsuits over inaccessible spaces and building features. But what if there was a way to both comply with ADA and ensure maximum accessibility for all kinds of people, even if their needs aren’t covered by ADA?

Universal design aims to deliver a maximally accessible facility to the broadest possible range of people. It’s not a replacement for following ADA, but it is a smart strategy for anyone who owns or manages a building. Ensuring your facility is as accessible as possible means that more people can benefit from your facility, earning you a premium reputation and paving the way for more people to patronize your tenants.

“It’s the intent to reach a broad range of individuals. It’s equitable design that works for everyone,” said Leslie Suhr, commercial market sector leader at LEO A DALY. “Nothing is modified for a certain type of person. If you’re thinking at a broader level, it’s not an ADA toilet, it’s having every toilet available for everyone as your needs change over time.”

Here's what you need to know about universal design and how it interacts with ADA.

What is Universal Design?

Universal design started as a set of seven principles developed by the Center on Universal Design at North Carolina State University in the 1990s, according to the Whole Building Design Guide. Over time, they were updated and refined into eight goals. These goals are linked to existing bodies of knowledge and measurable outcomes. The eight goals, released by the University at Buffalo in 2012, are:

  1. Body fit: Accommodating a wide range of body sizes and abilities
  2. Comfort: Keeping demands within desirable limits of body function
  3. Awareness: Ensuring that critical information for use is easily perceived
  4. Understanding: Making methods of operation and use intuitive, clear and unambiguous
  5. Wellness: Contributing to health promotion, avoidance of disease and prevention of injury
  6. Social integration: Treating all groups with dignity and respect
  7. Personalization: Incorporating opportunities for choice and the expression of individual preferences
  8. Cultural appropriateness: Respecting and reinforcing cultural values and the social, economic and environmental context of any design project

“We think of universal design as a design process that enables and empowers a diverse population by aiming toward three different outcomes—advancing and improving human performance, health and wellness and social participation,” said Dr. Jordana Maisel, a professor of urban planning at the University at Buffalo and leader of research at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (also known as the IDEA Center). “Those three outcomes guide the goals of universal design that we’ve developed and how we go about implementing universal design.”

Universal design allows you to serve people who don’t necessarily have a disability but could use extra help. Think of a mail carrier pushing a heavy cart of packages, or a parent with a stroller.

“Universal design provides you the flexibility to accommodate people as they change, whether that’s as they age, change jobs, or have children. People change every day,” Suhr explained. “If you’re designing for a very narrow-minded version of what an office building should look like, that’s going to make it hard for people to feel comfortable and welcome when they come in the door, let alone do their jobs to the best of their ability. It’s that flexibility to adapt as people adapt and meet them where they are.”

Universal Design vs. ADA

Universal design and ADA are not the same thing, but they’re not mutually exclusive. In fact, universal design concepts can help you build on the minimum requirements ADA stipulates to create a facility that’s more welcoming to all.

“These features don’t just help people with disabilities, they help everyone else too,” said Joshua Klyber, associate principal of accessibility and universal design at Jensen Hughes. “By providing universal design, you can also increase rents and marketability and make your building a more appealing place for leasing tenants.”

In an office building, for example, universal design features might include conference rooms of different sizes and layouts or a variety of space types that allow people to choose where they work best.

“That makes for a much happier employee,” Klyber said. “They’re more productive, they have to deal with fewer distractions and they can operate at a better efficiency based on what their particular needs are.”

The Bottom Line

Incorporating universal design principles into your facility is a smart strategy for creating an inviting environment—and it doesn’t have to break the bank either. Consider these six takeaways.

1. Universal design features aren’t always expensive. Some building amenities, like putting an elevator into a historic five-story building that wasn’t built to house one, can be pricey, but many universal design features won’t cost more than your usual go-to practices. “For example, seating,” Klyber said. “Instead of providing a single type of seat all the way through a waiting room, just buy two or three kinds of seating from the same series and manufacturer and put them in your waiting space.”

2. Involve diverse viewpoints in your design process. Bring in someone knowledgeable in universal design, and don’t forget to talk to the people who will be using your building, Klyber advised. Involve the communities who will use your building as you design it.

3. ADA is not optional. “Being compliant with current ADA requirements is required,” Klyber said. “No matter how old the building or how much money you have or don’t have, or if things have always been done that way, you have to be compliant with the ADA.”

4. Accessibility is inviting. “If you start incorporating universal design elements for various communities, you’re going to improve the efficiency of your workers and the people in the space, but also make it more inviting to the public,” Klyber said. “Universal design and accessibility don’t have to look institutional.”

5. Universal design is an opportunity, not an obligation or a key to getting your certificate of occupancy. “It’s important for building owners and facilities managers to understand that by introducing more universal design features, you’re helping everyone create a healthier, more productive environment,” Maisel said. “See it as a design opportunity rather than just a regulation that needs to be adopted.”

6. Universal design helps futureproof your facility. “As we change, we can’t possibly anticipate what the next set of requirements will be,” Suhr said. “Nobody in 1920 planned for ADA, but now it’s second nature to design for that all over the country. What are we not aware of yet that we can be ready for if we’re more flexible and equitable right now?”

About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.

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