Building industry perspectives on universal design

Architects and other design professionals are in a position to educate their clients about universal design. However, their own lack of knowledge is passing up this opportunity. Understanding building industry perspectives on universal design is a good start for unravelling the issues.

Zallio and Clarkson’s study spans disciplines of behavioural science, ergonomics and the social sciences of architecture. It uncovered the challenges architectural practitioners face when designing inclusively.

A man in work overalls stands with his back to the camera. Next to him is a man in a check shir and hard hat pointing to a multi storey building in the background.

One of the challenges is the scarcity of standards and policies, and limited willingness to build the business case for inclusion. The research pinpoints where interventions and tools could have a positive impact. This paper builds on previous work shown in the sections below.

The title of the paper is, A study to depict challenges and opportunities building industry professionals face when designing inclusive and accessible buildings.

From the abstract

Inclusive Design is widely promoted in the fields of product, engineering, and user experience design. However, Inclusive Design is not widely embraced in architectural
design practice, where it is often associated with design for disability.

This multidisciplinary study explores the challenges architectural design practitioners face when designing inclusively, and identifies opportunities to promote the adoption of Inclusive Design.

The results of a questionnaire completed by 114 architectural design practitioners underscore the lack of client awareness of the benefits of inclusive design. Practitioners have an important role to play in advocating for Inclusive Design. There is a need to develop practices and tools that enhance the design and post-design phases of buildings to ensure inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

Inclusive Design Canvas

Many designers know about universal design but don’t yet know what makes a design inclusive and accessible. The Inclusive Design Canvas helps architects to engage in co-design processes and assess their designs for inclusivity.

The image is from Zallio’s IDEA Toolbox

A button link to the Inclusive Design Canvas. Its says, Embrace empathy and get new ideas with the inclusive design canvas.

How is it possible to educate architecture design professionals to reduce points of exclusion for building occupants? With this question in mind, two researchers set out to address the mismatch between design, construction and delivery of a building to meet the principles of inclusion.

Many architectural professionals are overloaded with guides and regulations. So the idea of another design tool was met with ambivalence, but continuing professional development requirements encouraged participation in two workshops. This is where co-design processes can educate users while finding out what their issues are.

The title of the article is, The Inclusive Design Canvas. A Strategic Design Template for Architectural Design Professionals. The key point? Embed inclusion within the design process from the outset, and incorporate it into design software.

Building industry knowledge and attitude are key

As universal design followers know, building and construction standards do not ensure accessibility, let alone inclusion. Well-informed architectural design practitioners understand the benefits. So what is holding back the others? Lack of knowledge or attitude – or both? Matteo Zallio found that poorly informed stakeholders think that:

  • ‘Inclusive design’ means architectural barriers or physical accessibility.
  • Very few know about cognitive and sensory inclusion and accessibility.
  • ‘Inclusion’ means referring mostly to the Disability Discrimination Act.
  • ‘Inclusive design’ is an extra cost.
  • ‘Inclusive design’ is just a regulatory obligation. 
A desk has highlighter pens in different colours, working papers and a smart phone.

The factors influencing these views were: cultural background, personal knowledge, geographical location and context, lack of understanding of terminology, and lack of focus and details in regulations. Well-informed stakeholders think that “inclusive design”

  • can be beneficial for clients and occupants;
  • guarantees and elevated baseline of access; and
  • is a gold standard for their business and an example for others as well. 
Picture of three young women wearing hard hats and holding pens and looking at a drawing on a table top

Developing the Inclusive Design Canvas

With feedback from stakeholders, Zallio mapped out an “inclusive design canvas”. It’s a matrix of six elements that can help designers think through the issues and solutions. The user journey, capabilities and needs are one dimension, and the other dimension consists of physical, sensory and cognitive aspects. The matrix below shows the elements.

The three elements of the Inclusive Design Canvas for architectural design.

Zallio found there were far fewer well-informed stakeholders than poorly-informed stakeholders. The issue was more pronounced outside major cities. Potentially, in the UK, this can be due to heritage factors, but it is also cultural make-up of these regions.  Having to consider more groups within the broader context of equity has diluted the needs of people with disability. 

Zallio discusses the matrix in, Inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility in the built environment: A study of architectural design practice.

See also Inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility in the built environment: A study of architectural design practice (Zallio and Clarkson, 2021). There is a technical report that supports the development of the Inclusive Design Canvas. It’s titled, A validation study on the challenges that architectural practitioners face when designing inclusively.

Equitable building interfaces

Getting into and negotiating a building is one thing. But has anyone thought about the design of the details. These include building interfaces such as light switches, thermostats, window treatments and furniture. They all affect comport, health and energy savings. An article in an architecture journal looks a these issues. The title of the article is, Equitable, ethical and environmental approaches to building control interfaces. This is not open access but the full abstract follows.


Long-term change lies in cultural, rather than technological, solutions. Building designs must shift in ways that are equitable, ethical, and environmentally conscious, down to small details, such as the building interface. The many building control interfaces we use each day—from light switches and thermostats to window treatments and furniture—affect access to comfort, health, and energy savings. A thermostat that is difficult to use or even illegible for someone with differing visual acuity hinders an occupant’s ability to enjoy and effectively live within an interior space. As part of an interior’s ecology, building control interfaces influence fundamental ways we interact with our immediate environment, and compound interior behaviors to affect local and global ecologies. The design of building control interfaces rarely engages human-centered approaches, let alone considering how the interfaces relate to equitable access or sustainable use of energy. There is not a clear unified design theory to guide the design and integration of building control interfaces. This essay provides an interdisciplinary framework for ethical building control interface design informed by philosophies of justice, environmental ethics, wicked problem theory, and principles of equity, Universal Design, and human rights.

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