Beyond minimum standards

Urban landscape with shade trees and lots of casual seating with people sitting. Going beyond minimum standards.Why does the design of built environment continue to fail people with disability? Many have asked this question since Selwyn Goldsmith raised it in the 1960s. Many have found answers. But these are not enough to make a difference to the results. New buildings continue to pose barriers in spite of regulations and standards. Going beyond minimum standards is therefore a big ask. 

Imogen Howe, an architect with 10 years experience, wants to find the answer. Her proposed research aims to find out why the built environment continues to marginalise people with disability. Her specific PhD research questions are:

    • Why and how does the Australian built environment continue to marginalise people with disabilities, despite the Disability Discrimination Act (1992)?
    • How does building design reproduce exclusion and segregation? How is this underpinned by design assumptions and approaches both contemporary and historic?
    • Do building and design codes in Australia, NZ, Canada and the UK address dignity?
    • How do we educate becoming architects about the need for inclusive design and then how to enact it in their designs?

References are made to key thinkers and writers on the topic such as Amie Hamraie, C.W. Mills, Joss Boys and Michel Foucault. 

These questions are posed in an article framed as a discussion piece in The key provocations for the discussion are: eugenics and stigma in design, society structures, and how could this be different. Imogen invites comment and ideas from readers. The title of the article is, “The need for inclusive design: going beyond the minimum standards in the built environment”.

This website has more than 100 research papers related to the built environment. Many have sought the same answers.

Universal design is invisible

The entry to Stortinget metro in Olso showing the uncluttered design with easy access for everyone.
Stortinget Metro Station

Universal design is invisible: that is, until it is not there. Refurbishments and upgrades to buildings can embed universal design without anyone noticing. Using a case study of a train station in Norway, Richard Duncan explains how it was done.

Duncan’s article, Right Under Your Nose: Universal Design in Norway is an easy to read article and is based on Olav Rand Bringa’s work. When done well, universal design minimises the need for separate designs for people with disability. For example, ‘accessible’ exit routes were previously signed with the international symbol. In the new scheme, many of the signs were removed. Yet travellers with disability did not comment on their absence. The design itself indicated where to go. 

There is more in the article about the work of Bringa that traces the history of universal design in Norway. Two surveys from 2018 reveal a gradual change in attitude about universal design. More people understand the concept and agree with the principle of, “Universal design is necessary for some and useful for many”. 

Norway is a global leader in implementing UD strategies. Their landmark document, Norway Universally Designed by 2025, focuses on inclusive policies where everyone is made responsible.

Olav Bringa has written several articles beginning in 1999 when Norway first embraced universal design principles. They are:

Universal Design and Visitability: From accessibility to zoning.  It’s Chapter 6.

Progress on Universal Design in Norway: A review 

Universal Design as a Technical Norm and Juridical Term – A Factor of Development or Recession? Bringa discusses the importance of language in the quest for inclusion. I’ts open access.

Photo by Olav Rand Bringa showing the improved and uncluttered entrance to the station.


Maximise inclusion for ageing in place

A row of red brick terraced houses where people will age in place.
An image from the report

What does ‘ageing in place’ actually mean? For some it means staying put in the family home in their later years. For others it means staying in the same community. And for another group it means moving to a more suitable place in which to grow old. Regardless, it means NOT going into residential care at any point, or at least, only as a last resort. But ageing in place can sometimes lead to isolation. How can we maximise inclusion for ageing in place?

Researchers at the University of Manchester developed a ‘village’ model of support based on those in the US. A village is a grassroots community-based group that supports people to age well in their own homes. The people who know how to do this best are older people themselves. So researchers involved older people in the research.

The residents came together to identify the services that they need and how they could be better managed. Story-telling was an integral part of the data collection. Ideas were generated for supporting ageing in place at a local level. 

Front cover of the report on ageing in place.
Front cover of the report

The report on the project provides more detail about the diversity of the people they worked with. It recounts the difficulties recruiting volunteers and participants as well as overcoming distrust of decision-makers. Access to formal and informal meeting places was also an issue.

Recommendations include building social infrastructure and strengthening organisations led by older people. 

The title of the report is, Community interventions to promote ‘ageing in place‘.  

Related reading

Jem Golden provides an overview of the research project in a LinkedIn article.  The main objectives are:

    • Advance understanding of ‘ageing in place’ in cities using interdisciplinary perspectives
    • Examine policies and age-friendly initiatives aimed at supporting ageing in place across seven cities
    • Explore experiences of ageing in place among diverse ageing populations (reflecting different ethnic, gender and class backgrounds) living in urban neighbourhoods
    • Develop methods and tools for measuring and reporting the impact of age-friendly interventions
    • Co-produce innovative models of dissemination with various stakeholder groups

Age and Dementia Streetscapes Toolkit

front cover of Age and Dementia Friendly Streetscapes Toolkit.We know that walking has health benefits for all age groups. But for people with dementia, walking the neighbourhood becomes more challenging. Yet walking is important for dementia prevention and management. So how can we make streetscapes dementia friendly? The Age and Dementia Streetscapes Toolkit is a great start. Based on participatory action research, the toolkit is a very practical guide. 

Around 70% of people with dementia are staying in their home environments. As we know, walking is good for physical and mental health. But what can councils do in practical terms to support people with dementia to get out and about? 

Moonee Valley City Council in Victoria wanted to know how to make environments more welcoming. They commissioned a project to find out what design features are most important to older residents. The resulting toolkit is the result of much consultation within local communities. The toolkit shows how a few tweaks can make places more vibrant, supportive and accessible.

The consultation process focused on one main street. It was chosen because it was surrounded by a high density of older people. They found that shops had a role to play especially where shopkeepers knew residents by name. 

The Age n Dem Toolkit was developed to provide a practical guide for the design of inclusive and accessible streetscapes. It “identifies elements that yellow background with a black call-out box with Age n Dem in itsupport inclusive built environment outcomes for older people generally as well as for people living with dementia.”

The process of developing the toolkit was also published in the Journal of Transport and Health. Extracts from the abstract follow.

Extract from Abstract

Age’n’dem was a participatory design process with older residents of Moonee Valley. It informed streetscape design, ensured access for older people including people with dementia, and to ensured measures were inclusive. The experiential learning process informed redesign of Union Road streetscape in Ascot Vale, Victoria. This street operated as an intact and attractive environment for shopping, and was surrounded by the highest density of older people in the municipality. Shops played an important role in supporting people to age in place.

Shopkeepers played an informal role by looking out for regulars, and helping out when and if something happened. Residents relied on it. Walking up the street, passing the time in a familiar place and dropping in on shopkeepers had become part of a daily ritual for many locals. What the shopkeepers did informally was better than any response any community service could offer.

Our role became one of supporting a natural and organic response by listening, watching and learning. We knew that If we made the street more comfortable we could sustain older residents’ interest as they age. We also knew that walking plays a key role in dementia prevention. Investing in local’s knowledge was important. Process is everything. Our most articulate supporters are the older residents themselves talking on national radio, and statewide press.

Architecture, aesthetics and universal design

A view of the open plan kitchen. The home has a lot of timber in the construction and the furniture.
Frank Lloyd Wright considered aesthetics in architecture

The principles and goals of universal design have no criteria for aesthetics. It’s focus is on functional requirements rather than sensory experiences. It doesn’t help when architects and planners continue to associate universal design with regulations and standards and leave aesthetics out. But the key to designing environments for everyone is to draw together architecture, aesthetics and universal design.

Carolyn Ahmer’s paper discusses universal design in the context of renowned architects. She explains how their designs include inclusive elements together with aesthetics. The article covers visual and non-visual information and movement through space.

The aim of the paper is to highlight the qualities of design essential to creating buildings that stimulate our senses. One source of inspiration is in our architectural history. 

She concludes that inclusive architecture should be based on qualitative and quantitative measures. Quantitative assessments are based on controllable data and standardised specifications. Qualitative assessments focus on sensory experiences of an architectural project. These are features that cannot be measured but should not be discounted. 

The title of the article is, The Qualities of Architecture in Relation to Universal Design.  The paper was presented at the UD2021 conference in Finland. It’s published in Universal Design 2021: From Special to Mainstream Solutions

Putting a value on universal design

Entry area to a large building that has light grey poles with handrails around and steps between. All is grey tones.
Entry to a new office block in Parramatta

Which universal design features benefit the general population and which suit a small group? This is the kind of question economists like to ask. But who to ask? The building users of course. “Stated Preferences” is the term used for asking people what they think something is worth. It’s one way of putting a value on Universal Design.

Building regulations stipulate certain access requirements, but using Stated Preferences analysis and cost-benefit data, researchers found that some features suited a wide group, while others suited only a few. The question then is, if the feature for the few costs the most, should it be included or ignored in a retrofit? 

The technical methods are explained in their conference paper. It includes what was measured and how they were valued. The discussion section of the paper sums up the study. They found that Stated Preferences analysis and cost-benefit data can show the social and economic benefits of different features. For example, a handrail on stairs can pay back six times the investment. Among high benefit features, were good lighting, visual and tactile markings, and stair handrails. However, the story is not quite this simple and the researchers point to this.

The 18 Measures

• Good pedestrian walking surfaces outdoor
• Visual marking of walkways
• Visual and tactile marking indoors
• Stair handrails
• Automatically opening entrance doors
• Visual contrast on entrance doors
• Access ramps for entrances
• Access ramps in swimming pools
• Access ramps at beaches
• Visual marking of doors and glass walls
• Low counters – accessible for wheelchair users and people of below average height
• Universal designed toilet facilities
• Installing elevators
• Modernization of existing elevators – tactile buttons, audio messages etc.  – Improved indoor lighting
• Outdoor lighting
• Assistive listening system/hearing loop
• Floor space for wheelchair access

An interesting study that reveals the preferences of building users and the value they place on certain features and the related costs. This can be compared with features set down in access standards where the value for users is not assessed, or the costs.

The title of the article is, Upgrading Existing Buildings to Universal Design. What Cost-Benefit Analyses Can Tell Us.  It is open source from IOS Press. 

Smart cities for all ages

An older man rides his bicycle along a street. In the background is a brightly coloured mural.We discuss the population ageing as if older people are a problem and a burden. Apart from being an ageist proposition, it does little to change matters. When we talk of “empowering older adults” to engage in active ageing, who took the power away in the first place? Was it the advent of secluded congregate living that seduced older adults into feeling “secure”? Or was it something else? Regardless, research continues on ways to make people “feel capable and safe”. 

An article in The Conversation begins, “Senior citizens need help and encouragement to remain active as they age in their own communities.” It is not clear why this is specific to older people. The article continues to explain how a city can provide digital infrastructure for the local information older people need. Three solutions are proposed for keeping older adults, indeed everyone, active and healthy:

      1. Replace ageism with agency for improved quality of life.
      2. Connect to smart city data to get the right information.
      3. Include co-design in planning for greater participation and inclusion. 

A previous post on Ageing in neighbourhood rather than retirement villages reports a similar approach to population ageing. 

Universal Design and Local Government

Three children, each a wheelchair user, are enjoying the spinner in the playground: a universal design.
Children enjoying the spinner in the playground

Adam Johnson used Bunbury in Western Australia as a case study for his presentation at the UD2021 Australian Universal Design Conference. Bunbury set itself an aim, and a challenge, to be the “Most Accessible Regional City in Australia”. Adam explained how he used participatory action research (PAR) methods to meet Bunbury’s challenge. Universal design in local government means involving the people who are the subject of the research. In this case, people with disability and older people. 

PAR has three principles: 

    • The people most affected by the research problem should participate in ways that allow them to share control over the research process
    • The research should lead to some tangible action within the immediate context
    • The process should demonstrate rigour and integrity. 

Adam recruited 11 co-researchers to work with him: 6 people with disability, 3 family carers, and 2 support workers.

The research team with the Mayor (standing).
The research team with the Mayor (standing)

Local government is where the ‘rubber hits the road’. Local government is best placed to work with residents and understand the context of where they live, and it means they can be innovative with solutions tailored to local needs. 

The research project had a positive impact:

– Greater alignment between policies and practices at the City of Bunbury with universal design.
– Co design panel created informing many current infrastructure projects.
– Universal design standards adopted.
– Staff and contractors trained in Universal Design.
– $100,000 per annum allocated for auditing and retrofitting

The project was undertaken with a three year industry engagement scholarship with Edith Cowan University. The title of Adam’s presentation is, Universal design in local government: Participatory action research findings. 


Public Toilets and social and economic participation

Outback dunny in a field of orange grass against a deep blue sky.Public toilets are not dinner party conversation, but they are essential to our wellbeing. They are costly to build and maintain yet we need more of them. They also need to be fit for purpose because they are about social and economic participation. The Changing Places toilet campaign is a case in point. There wouldn’t be many people passionate about public toilets, but Katherine Webber had plenty to say at the UD2021 Conference. 

Katherine’s presentation was titled, Access and Inclusion in Public Toilets: Impacts on social and economic participation. The presentation slides show lots of different examples. Toilet design is often dismissed as just needing to be functional and designs vary little. But public toilets are “difficult to get right. And no wonder. They are mired in cultural baggage, struck in the fixedness of fixtures and bound by massive, often ancient infrastructure (Lowe 2018:49). 

Public toilets also support tourism and economic development, night-time economy, and access to public spaces and public art. 

Katherine describes more in her written paper on this topic. She was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study toilets in other countries. 

Accessible Eco Homes

Front cover of report.Can homes be both eco-friendly and accessible? If not, it means people with disability and older people are excluded from the benefits of an eco-home. Part M of the UK building regulations require a level threshold and a downstairs toilet. The Lifetime Home standard provides for more flexibility for adaptation. But what are the eco-home advocates and designers doing for accessibility?

A study by Amita Bhakta found the following issues with the eco home movement:

    • Sustainability has overridden accessibility in sustainable communities in the UK.
    • Disability requires greater understanding that it is more than mobility impairment. 
    • Space beyond the home should be included in the meaning of home.
    • Top-down policy is not enough – co-design is required.
    • Planners, architects and builders in eco-housing do not consider bodily differences.

The title of the report available from is Accessibility in Sustainable Communities. It includes a discussion about whether sustainable communities should cater for all needs. But Bhakta points out that sustainable communities cannot regard themselves as progressive if they are exclusive. The report concludes with a model for inclusive sustainable communities. See abstract below. 

There is a similar article, Making space for disability in eco-homes and eco-communities. The eco-home movement in the UK is underpinned by collaborative and communal housing and living. The aim of the movement is to minimise environmental impact and to be socially progressive. 


There is continued failure to build homes for diverse and disabled occupancy. We use three eco-communities in England to explore how their eco-houses and wider community spaces accommodate the complex disability of hypotonic Cerebral Palsy. Using site visits, video footage, spatial mapping, field diary observations, surveys and interviews, this paper argues that little attention has been paid to making eco-communities and eco-houses accessible. There are, we argue, four useful and productive ways to interrogate accessibility in eco-communities, through  understandings of legislation, thresholds, dexterity and mobility. These have three significant consequences for eco-communities and disabled access: ecological living as practised by these eco-communities relies upon particular bodily capacities, and thus excludes many disabled people; disabled access was only considered in relation to the house and its thresholds, not to the much broader space of the home; and eco-communities need to be, and would benefit from being, spaces of diverse interaction.