How to design an inclusive school building

A view of the school courtyard showing a circular garden and blue paving.A design project for a new school building shows how to make it inclusive for everyone. Architects involved users from the outset and then applied the knowledge they gained. This was no typical building because the task was to integrate two existing schools into the one building. One was a primary school and the other is described as a special school. The story is told in a video which begins with the architects talking about their approach. The video goes on to discuss all the elements they needed to consider which make this an excellent exemplar for all buildings.

Good examples of incorporating user feedback are the installation of footbaths. The area has a high Somali population who like to wash their feet before praying. Understanding that some children with autism find sharp building lines difficult influenced the curved building shapes within the building. The placement of toilets so staff don’t have to walk the length of the building each time was another factor in the final design. Integrating overhead hoists for transferring children to and from wheelchairs so that it just looked like part of the overall design – not special. Small details also make a difference. An interesting point was installing different tap styles because it is a learning experience for the children. And of course energy efficiency was not forgotten in the design process. 

 A very useful and interesting video from the UK for anyone interested in design. There are few good examples of inclusive design in action so this is welcome change. 

A second video shows it’s very productive to involve children in the design process. It’s too easy to dismiss them on the basis that they are too young to know much. It’s also a learning process for them too.

 The picture a the top is of the courtyard in the new school.

Beyond compliance with UD

Front cover of the guide.Standards for the built environment tell you how to comply with minimum requirements. But compliance does not equal usability or convenience for everyone. A guide book from Ireland on the built environment draws together Irish standards with a practical universal design approach. Many of the standards mirror those in Australia so most of the information is compatible. Parking, siting, pedestrian movement, steps, ramps, lifts, seating and bollards are all covered. 

Building for Everyone, External environment and approach covers each of the features in detail. While the style of tactile indicators varies from the Australian design, the advice on placement is still useful. There is a reference list of related documents including Australian Standards. The guide is undated, but probably published circa 2010. This means some of the technology, such as parking ticket machines is a little outdated.

There is also a section at the end on human abilities and design. It covers walking, balance, handling, strength and endurance, lifting, reaching, speech, hearing, sight, touch and more.

Published by the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design in Ireland it is very detailed. Checklists help guide the reader through the material. This booklet links with others in the series, particularly the one on entrances and circulation spaces. The good aspect of these guides is the perspective of a universal design approach rather than proposing prescriptive design parameters.

The science of universal design

An aerial view of Grand Harbour Malta showing the many bays and dense population.Can universal design be regarded as a science? As more guidelines are produced with technical specifications, there’s a danger that the spirit of the concept is getting lost. When we drill down to the skills required to design inclusively we find it goes beyond well-meaning guidelines. This is what makes designing universally a science. 

Reporting on case study of a design proposal for a floating sea terminal in the Grand Harbour in Malta, Lino Bianco explains why. The case study also includes a heritage centre, a maintenance workshop and offices. The article details technical aspects supported by drawings and design considerations.

Bianco begins with the background to universal design and how it relates to EU and the Maltese context.  As a member state of the EU, Malta is obliged to follow the legal requirements for accessibility and inclusion. 

Bianco argues that the universal design philosophy has evolved into the systematic development of design guidelines. Consequently, the guidelines have become mandatory for built infrastructure projects. This has lead to a compliance approach which is contrary to the original aims of universal design. This is why the holistic application of universal design principles is a science not a format.

His concluding comments propose that universal design should be descriptive and not prescriptive. “Adopting a performance-based approach is what UD as an applied science involves. It leads to designs with inclusive environs beyond the prescriptive requirement at law”.

The title of the article isUniversal Design: From design philosophy to applied science. 

Abstract: Universal Design (UD) philosophy is inspired by the social responsibility that no discrimination is present in the use of the built environment. During recent decades UD philosophy led to a systematic development of design guidelines for architectural and urban projects aimed at rendering the built environment accessible to all. In Malta, such guidelines are endorsed by central and local government entities and non­governmental organizations and they are covered by legislation which i s actively enforced. Moreover, the law stipulates that the planning regulator makes it mandatory that a given development permission complies with these guidelines. This ensures that no barriers can hinder the usage of a given development. The objective of this paper is to demonstrate that UD is not only a legal requisite emerging from a socially sensitive design philosophy and grounded in official design standards that ensure legal compliance, but an applied science aimed at ensuring mobility for all. Using a case study from this European Union Member State, this paper argues that setting the focus on technical specifications relating to access for all falls short of addressing the inherent interdependencies; consequently, it does not tackle UD issues. UD goes beyond the prescriptive requirement established by law and underpins a performance-based design, thereby intrinsically enhancing the quality of any given element, whether a space or a product. UD is an applied scientific discipline; it is a multifaceted, interdisciplinary branch of learning. It involves the application of current formal scientific knowledge to pragmatic scenarios in order to attain contextual specific solutions. UD is not just an applied design philosophy; it is an applied science integrating anthropometrics, medicine and design; it is universal design science.

Bianco, L. (2020). Universal design: from design philosophy to applied science. Journal of Accessibility and Design for All, 10 (1), 70-97

The myth of the accessible bathroom

A bathroom with red tiled wall has a white wc pan and two drop down grab bars. It's indicative of an accessible bathroom.Videos explaining universal design, almost universally start by showing a person in a wheelchair. This is one reason why people think universal design is disability design. It’s also why they think they don’t need it – it’s for the “others”. 

When the classic 7 Principles of Universal Design were devised in 1997, the concept was envisioned as mainstream. Hence the use of the term “universal”. However, universal design does benefit people with disability most. And it’s difficult to explain universal design without including people with disability

A video from the United States, titled Laying the Foundation for Universal Design, also starts with wheelchair users. In the second half it moves onto the 7 Principles as originally intended. It emphasises that universal deign goes beyond compliance. In this case, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

One speaker captures the concept well, “I laughingly talk about the myth of the accessible bathroom, because there are so many ways you can meet the intent of the law, and still it doesn’t meet everyone’s needs”. Looking for flexibility in the solutions available is the key. It’s critical to think about how different people respond, perceive or interact with a design.

This video is one in a series and good for introducing people to the concept of universal design. It has some good take home messages. However, the focus is on people with disability. There is little mention of children, older people, people who are neurodiverse, and those using wheeled devices other than wheelchairs.

Similarly to Australia, the US legislation, ADA, does not require universal design. Compliance usually results in accessibility as an afterthought. Universal design is a set of performance guidelines that explain why it should be done.

Thanks to LifeMark in New Zealand for this find. The video was created by Tools for Life Georgia AT in the US. It is one of a series.

 

How to make a Universal Design Toolkit

As with all educational materials, toolkits should be designed with everyone in mind. If not, key sections of your community could be missing out on your information. After all, learners come in all shapes and sizes and different frames of reference. This is especially important if the guideline is about accessibility, inclusion and/or universal design.

So how do you universally design a toolkit or guideline? 

When devising a customer engagement toolkit, the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design in Ireland also documented their process and lessons learned. While the document is focused on tourism, the method and principles are relevant to any field of practice.

At 100 pages this is a lengthy document. You might want to skip the first part and go directly to the section on Guidelines to Toolkit Authors, which is at the end. Each of the headings and subheadings form a guide to developing and designing instructional toolkits and guidelines for practice. Here are some of the key points from this section about the structure of the toolkit:

Step 1: ‘Perception’, the ability to understand information regardless of the user’s ability to see, hear or touch
Step 2: ‘Discoverability’, providing flexibility in use so that the user can find the information they want
Step 3: ‘Understanding’, how easy it is for the customer to interpret and understands how to use the content; regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level
Step 4: ‘Use’, the design prevents from accidental or inadvertent actions, forms, controls and navigation are usable and the customer decides on how to use and act on the content presented

The title of the report is Lessons from Good Practices to Guide Universal Design Toolkits

Living the message is an important point in the universal design world. Anyone who writes, educates or speaks about universal design and inclusive practice should live the message. For example, a slideshow presentation about universal design with tiny font is contrary to the message. 

Editor’s note: This document looks to be for an academic or professional audience and perhaps not following their own guidelines. Regardless of the intended audience, applying UD principles helps understanding and retention of information.

Including everyone in the library

A row of computer workstations line a wall. There are no people in the picture.The digital age has transformed libraries with computers taking centre stage. Library computer kiosks are part of this transition. Consequently, computer kiosks and work-spaces need to be accessible and inclusive.

In a semester long project students were tasked with designing a library kiosk using universal design principles. The process and outcome is reported as a case study. Some components were already available, such as height adjustable desks and fully adjustable seats. The technology was assessed to ensure assistive devices could be used.

The paper covers additional considerations in the design and discusses lessons learned. In concluding, the authors say accessibility is everyone’s responsibility. It is the key role of librarians to provide leadership for inclusion in all aspects of the institution. That includes facility design, collection management, technology and instruction. 

The title of the paper is, Universal Design Creates Equity and Inclusion: Moving from Theory to Practice.

This paper is not just about designing a library kiosk, it is also about educating students and other library staff. This kind of project demonstrates a leadership role for inclusion across the institution. 

Abstract: Universal design focuses on small changes that can be made to benefit everyone. Universal design principles can be applied to both physical and virtual environments and help provide universal access to technology and information. This paper provides a case study of the design of a library computer kiosk in an academic library, using principles of universal design to create a universally accessible workstation. The paper provides an overview of features included in the workstation, images of the workstation, and includes discussion of additional considerations and lessons learned from the design experience.  

Diversity of Explanations of UD

a series of black icons on white background depicting people of all shapes and sizes, including a baby in a stroller, a person with a can and a wheelchair user Working with diversity is a key element of universal design thinking. So having diverse ways of explaining universal design seems appropriate. Wikipedia and universal design websites will have many of the standard explanations. But understanding universal design is more of a continuous conversation. Different words can be utilised in different discussions.

In common use are “inclusive design”, “design-for-all” and “design for the lifespan”.  Other words and terms could be:

Provocative design: doing things differently, challenging the status quo.

Fragile design: designs that require community agreement to hold them together.

Careful or caring design: taking care to be inclusive in design thinking and processes.

Everyday design: designing more things to be ubiquitous, accepted and normal.

Thoughtful design: the opposite of thoughtless design where some people feel left out.

Empathetic design: similar to careful/caring design and thoughtful design, by putting yourself in the situation of others.

Looking to the future design: looking at how trends are developing and factoring this into designs.

7 senses design: factoring all our senses into designs.

Collaborative design: in some cultures this is a significant part of the design process – without it the product, service or building won’t be used.

Acceptable design: similar to collaborative design, but perhaps some compromises have to be made.

Disruptive design: changing the way things are done, challenging the status quo of designs, using environments or products in new ways.

Intergenerational design: family structures are diverse – recognising that not every family is a nuclear family whether at home or in the community.

Liveable design: being functional for everyone as well as looking good

Universal usability: focusing on how people use things – used mostly in relation to mobile technology, particularly to include older people

Interaction experience: trying to pull together usability, user experience and accessibility under one umbrella – relates mostly to ergonomics

Download the one page Word version or one page PDF version for reference.

In line with the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disability and the WHO Age Friendly Cities and Communities program we should continue with universal design. The term is understood internationally as a concept for physical, social, economic and cultural inclusion.

As an aside to this list, academia seems keen on adding and own yet more terms for what is essentially the same thing – wanting to be more inclusive with designs. Do we really need any more terms? 

For a crash course on the basics of universal design, sign up to CUDA’s free online learning, Introduction to Universal Design.

Jane Bringolf, Editor

Design details and everyday experiences

Title of the article in white text over an image of the top of an escalatorWhat is it about designs that either include or exclude users? Many designs are everyday – the things we hardly notice. That is, until we have difficulty using them. Design students need to see how exclusion happens.

Deborah Beardslee takes the perspective of physical ability to analyse how inclusion and exclusion happen in the design process. She notes that most designs work reasonably well for most people even if they aren’t designed that well. But we are all familiar with some degree of compromised experience. For example, hard to read instructions, doors that are difficult to open, places difficult to navigate and generally unappealing places.

Beardlee’s article will be of interest to design educators as well as practitioners. It focuses on examining everyday interactions with commonplace items with analysis of several examples. The aim of the paper is to encourage strategies for educating designers to be more inclusive. 

The title of the article is, Inclusive, High Quality Decisions? Macro/Micro Design Impacts within our Everyday Experiences, and was accessed from SEGD.org Universal Design webpage.

Abstract:  Age and physical ability are natural filters for assessing the successes of designed objects, messages, and experiences. Design problem solving contributes (or not) to the resolution of challenges faced by aging and/or physically challenged individuals as they interact with products and contexts in the built environment. This paper examines some design details, solutions, and situations that impact everyday inclusivity and quality of experience, and suggests approaches toward understanding and increasing interaction success for all of us.

The comparisons presented in this work are intended to initiate an evolving platform for the discussion and development of design education strategies and content that prioritize aging and physical ability issues. Some familiar macro and micro examples have been chosen to illuminate everyday user interactions, challenges, and considerations. Ideally, increased exposure to these aspects, through audience-, age-, and ability-related projects, courses, and curriculum, will strengthen awareness and empathy in young design students, and encourage thoughtful, and more inclusive, design in the future.

Universal Design: New York

Front cover is grey with the title.A case study in creating universally designed urban spaces is a good way to showcase how it is done. Universal Design: New York 2 is not a new publication, but the principles are still relevant. It provides guidance for all aspects of an urban environment as well as temporary lodging, workplace facilities and human service facilities. The guide is comprehensive covering circulation systems, wayfinding, seating, public amenities, cultural facilities, renovations and additions, and more. It also lists seven myths about universal design and shows how they are just myths:

1. There are only a small number of people who benefit
2. Universal design only helps people with disability and older people
3. Legislation for disability rights have created equality, so no need to do more
4. Improved medical technology is reducing the incidence of functional limitation
5. Universal design cannot sustain itself in the marketplace because the people who need it most cannot afford it
6. Universal design is simply good ergonomic design
7. Universal design costs even more than accessible design

Universal Design: New York 2 is in PDF format. Edited by Danise Levine and published in 2003 by the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access, University at Buffalo.

Does universal design cost more in buildings?

xxxSupporters of universal design have long argued that it costs little, if any more, to make buildings inclusive and accessible. However, myths about cost remain and are perpetuated across the construction industry. A feasibility study by HCMA Architecture + Design for the Rick Hansen Foundation in Canada makes another attempt at the argument. In their report, they compare the Foundation’s certification features with Canada’s building code. Then they determine the cost increase by designing to the Foundation’s certification.

The key finding is similar to others. The average new construction cost increase is estimated to be an additional 1% of the construction in some cases. In others, there is no cost. But there is more to this research which reports on three certification levels and several design elements. The other key point is that the building code alone does not make buildings fully accessible. 

There are lots of graphs and drawings and it looks very technical. There are case studies across public, commercial and residential properties. This is a major piece of work at 80 pages with another 200 pages for appendices. Bottom line: the Canadian and Ontario building codes do not meet the needs of people with disability, and accessibility can be achieved with minimal cost impact with thoughtful/universal design. 

There is a very readable (simplified) news article in the Canadian Architect magazine, titled, Inclusive and Accessible Buildings Can be Constructed at No Additional Cost.  Or you can download the full research report, Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification Cost Comparison Feasibility Study.