Does the design of parliament buildings affect democracy?

Floor plan of seating in Bangladesh Parliament building showing a horseshoe cum circular design.In US politics we hear talk of ‘reaching across the aisle’. What if there was no aisle and everyone sat in a circle? It is well documented that spatial design affects mood and communication. Hospitals are designed to promote healing and airports to minimise stress. Research by architects asks if the design of our parliament buildings affects democracy. In a new book they look at the links between architecture and the political process.

Architecture firm XML examined as many of the 193 United Nations member states as they could and visited 15. Classroom style, horseshoes, opposing benches and semi-circles were most typical. The XML website has floor plans and 360 degree views.  Seems Bangladesh has a good model (floorplan pictured).

The authors say, “Once built, parliaments are locked in time, whereas political systems can and should adapt to what is changing in the world. It is necessary to rethink our models for collective decision-making but it seems to be incredible difficult. Architecture can be one of the ways to work and experiment with it.” There is a systematic lack of innovation in the spaces used by our elected leaders.

Some interesting points and 360 degree views of several buildings in the FastCompany article. Not mentioned in the article, but democracy is supposed to be an inclusive process. Title of the article is, The Subtle Way Government Architecture Shapes Governments Themselves.


Access Consultants’ Magazine: Focus on Worplaces

Front cove of the magazine.The Association of Consultants in Access Australia (ACAA) latest magazine has a focus on workplaces. Office fit-outs, workstations, emergency evacuation, working from home and the virtual world are all covered. Some content includes reference to Standards and is technical in nature.

Mary-Ann Jackson and Saumya Kaushik discuss issues from the perspective of COVID-19 and working from home. Eric Martin gives technical detail on office fit-outs. Inclusive and accessible online events and meetings are covered by Art Phonsawat.

Access Insight is available to view on the issue platform or you can download a pdf version. 

Home with wrap-around ramp: Will it work?

rear view of the all white home at twilight. It shows the ramp coming up from ground level on one side wrapping around the back and up to the first floor on the third side.A couple in their 50s told their architects they wanted a home for four generations. The home needed to accommodate themselves, their daughter and her husband and child, and three older relatives. Focusing on the older generation, the architects made a major feature of a ramp that wraps around the house from the ground to first floor. Other floors are accessed by stairs. But was this design about functionality or creativity? Why a ramp and not a lift that could have served all floors? And what about the accessibility of internal spaces? Perhaps there was a reason for not solving the access issues with a home lift. 

Front view of the three storey home taken at twilight.The wrap-around ramp for family members who use a wheelchair seems like a good idea until you see how long it is. A powered wheelchair could manage the ramp, but most people use a manual wheelchair indoors. Imagine pushing someone in a wheelchair on this ramp.

The home is featured on the Dezeen website with photographs to show the position of the ramp and the rationale behind it. The photographs here are taken from the Dezeen article. Note that the home is in Nansong, China so there could be regulations preventing other design options. There are links to other designs for multigenerational living.

A lift would serve all family members across their lifespan and would be more useable than a ramp. It is not clear why this option was not chosen. Any member of the family can find themselves permanently or temporarily disabled at any time. So focusing on the currently disabled person produces a specialised design instead of one designed inclusively.

Nike meets Universal Design

The Nike shoe is fashioned with pastel coloured sections. The picture shows a person taking their foot out of the shoe.Nike meets universal design again. They’ve improved their original Flyease design with a new shoe concept. They’ve found a totally different way of making the shoe easy to get on and off. So anyone experiencing trouble bending over, difficulty with fastenings, or just needing a speedy on and off will find this design excellent. When they are past their best they would make a great gardening shoe too – slip on and slip off at the door. Like all good designers who take a universal design approach, they’ve improved on their original design.

The secret of the new design is the way the shoe opens up to put on. The weight of the foot closes the shoe. Taking off is easy too. By stepping on the heel of the shoe (don’t we all do that anyway?) the shoe pops open. The Flyease Go shoes are an excellent example of universal design. They are easy, convenient and intuitive to use – for everyone. Well almost. Much will depend on the range of sizing. 

There is more information and two short videos on the FastCompany website that show how they work. Or you can visit the Nike website

There is also a YouTube video where the designer explains how they work and what the design concerns were. A great piece of engineering. 



School and apartment block merge

Aerial view of the proposed development showing the apartment towers and the school precinct at ground level.
Image by Jack Hobhouse/courtesy HawkinsBrown

Most schools have a lot of open space which is generally reserved for students. But these spaces are left empty a lot of the time. By merging a school with an apartment block, some spaces can be shared. This is part of the motivation behind an experimental building in Hackney, London. This is an example of reducing the segregation of generations and being more inclusive. It takes mixed use to another level. 

The 89 apartments are in two tower blocks while the school juts out from the base. There is a clear delineation between the two but the design shows they are meant to be together. For example, the school’s basketball court and the apartment block’s common room are shared spaces.

The architect said, “The interconnected apartments and school suggest that adults and children don’t have to be treated like different species in a zoo. By bringing them together, this space shows that school kids and apartment dwellers can peacefully coexist.” I call that another version of inclusive design.

The title of the article is, In London, an experimental building houses two very different types of tenants. It’s from the FastCompany website.


Defying the stereotypes

Karen Killilea has two young women each side of her and a young man behind. They are all smiling at the camera.Personal stories are a good way of engaging with an issue. When it comes to disability there are many stories such as the one in the Washington Post. It tells the story of a woman who was born with cerebral palsy in 1940 and her life defying the stereotypes. This is at a time when people with disability were hidden away at home or in institutions. 

There are stories that many would consider inspirational just because the person with disability did everyday things. Stella Young calls this out as inspiring porn. Some stories should rightfully inspire, but in the right way. Seeing a black president of the United States, a woman prime minister, or a senator with disability can be important figures for younger people. They see what is possible – “you cannot be what you cannot see”. The story in the Washington Post is titled, Karen Killilea, whose story helped change views on cerebral palsy, dies at 80.

The Mighty Girls Facebook page is promoting a series of books about Karen Killilea written by her mother. They aim to encourage parents and children to defy the stereotypes that still exist today.  

Architecture and tactile ground markers

A band of yellow tactile hazard markers surrounds the outside of a poorly constructed footpath. But there are no markers on the nearby kerb ramp.When it comes to accessibility in the built environment, it’s a common for people to think wheelchairs. Consequently, designers think of adding ramps, wider corridors and elevators. The Australian Standard for access and mobility is focused on wheelchair users and people with vision impairment. So it is little wonder that designers think this is the sum total of disability access – something to be added at the end. When tactile ground markers and ramps are not integral to the design we end up with long ramps and an excess of tactile ground markers. 

An article in Archdaily discusses the integration of tactile surfaces into design. The article gives a brief history, discusses the different types of tactile ground markers and how they are used. The main point of the article is that added thoughtfully, tactile makers can “improve the lives of all their occupants”. The article has many pictures to illustrate points made. 

A blind person will use their white cane to follow the directional markers, not their feet. People with low vision or partial sight can also use these markers effectively if there is sufficient colour contrast. 

The title of the article is, Why we should integrate tactile surfaces into architecture. It has pictures and drawings to illustrate points. 

The picture above shows a row of hazard markers (round dots) surrounding a poorly constructed forecourt to a building. Thoughtful construction would have eliminated the need for this. Ironically, the kerb ramp at the left of the picture has no markers contrary to standards. 

Three steps into doorway are tiled with grey hazard tactile markers edged with yellow markers. Editor’s comment: I have a large file of pictures of poorly and wrongly placed tactile ground surface indicators (tgsi). Some are placed as if to prevent slips. For example, on the treads of stairs. 


Accessible: more than step-free

A woman is pushing a man in a wheelchair up a ramp into the train. The train guard looks on. Another woman in a wheelchair waits for her turn. A man with a stroller is also in the picture.What’s it like for wheelchair users to navigate cities? Sandwich boards on footpaths, ramps too long or steep to use, and the housekeeping trolley left in the lift are just three examples. Free tickets to museum are useless if you can’t access the building or exhibits. Likewise a step-free entry does not make everything accessible. Neither is a bell at the door of an inaccessible building so that a staff member can offer to carry you in. After reporting on the most accessible city, Chester in UK, The Guardian asked readers across the globe share their experiences of accessing cities. Their stories make for interesting reading.

Inconsistency of access is a key issue for one wheelchair user. While one or two shops might make an effort, others don’t and some buses are accessible and others aren’t. Accessible toilets have such heavy door springs they are impossible to open. Another wheelchair user reported that some cafes and shops are accessible, but his choices are limited. It always means thinking ahead before leaving home. 

Having poor mobility and muscle strength means help is needed to carry things, but when the disability is invisible people are rarely willing to help. Similarly, standing on public transport can be painful, but at busy times no-one is willing to give up their seat. People with autism find public transport very stressful. Autism is another invisible disability that gets very little consideration.

Taking an adult child out for the day is impossible without a suitable toilet facility. Consequently it means staying home. Holidays are just a dream. 

Damaged or non-existent kerb cuts, potholes, out of order lifts, shops with narrow entrances are all barriers to getting out and about for a wheelchair user and anyone with limited mobility. 

The title of The Guardian article is, ‘I feel like a second-class citizen’: readers on navigating cities with a disability.  


Why home buyers don’t get UD

A banner advertising home and land packages. It says, "for people who want more".“We will build it if they ask for it” say the builders. But do they want home buyers to ask for it? And would they build it? The new home selling process relies on capturing the client’s personal and emotional commitment to the home before they sign the contract. And how do they do that? By getting them to choose the colours and styles of fixtures and fittings first. Once that happens the client becomes emotionally committed. The sale is made. Too late to consider universal design features – even if customers knew what they were.

This insight comes from an article in Sourceable by Darren Love. The opening paragraph says it all. 

“Builders seek innovative ways to market their products to clients. One method is to commit the client to a process that invests time and most importantly “emotional commitment” in the process. Focus the client on an ideal that the builder can make a reality.  The client’s “dream” of owning a house becomes real with the “help” of the builder.”

The title of the article is, Responsibility before Profit. It critiques the selling methods that builders use in this highly competitive market where cost cutting is part of the process. The article clearly explains why we cannot rely on the mass market housing industry to offer anything more than a choice of colour and upgrades to fixtures and fittings. 

RIDBC is moving to a new home

Artist impression of the main entry to the building showing steps and a corresponding ramp entry to the building.The Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children is moving to a new home. The Macquarie University campus is to be the new site for the RIDBC. The design and development application are on public exhibition until 16 December.

WMK Architecture created the design for the school and recreation areas and is featured in ArchitectureAu magazine. The article discusses the building style and materials, but says little about any access or universal design features.

The gallery of pictures of the proposed design shows some good features for everyone. Seating surrounds pillars so that people, blind or sighed, don’t crash into them. Curved outdoor seating enables deaf children to see each other signing. This style is good for everyone and encourages interaction. Patterned floor treatments are questionable though as these can be confusing to people who have marginal sight. Patterns can also be confusing to people with visual perception issues. The main entrance has both steps and a ramp of equal widths indicating choice. 

Have a look at the gallery of pictures and see what you think. The picture above is from the gallery. 

There is nothing in the article to suggest that building users were involved in the design, but it is difficult to imagine that they weren’t.