Understanding universal design in architecture

The building sector in Denmark is transitioning towards a universal design approach. But it has not yet found its way into architectural practice. Legislation and access codes remain the dominant features of design. Two researchers sought answers from young professionals who understand universal design in architecture. The aim was to see if the ideas are beginning to embed themselves in architectural practice.

A person in a powered wheelchair riding along the footpath.

“It is not just about ramps, handrails, and lifts. It is also about organising buildings and outdoor space. It is about showing consideration for those people who are somehow challenged in their physical capability or have cognitive challenges that make it difficult to obtain a good everyday life at work, in school or in day care.”

Quote from survey participant

The researchers surveyed “Frontrunners” – young professionals with an interest in universal design and those who are expected to be on the front line of professional development. They found the frontrunners understood universal design in five ways:

1. Universal design is a driver of social sustainability – they work together.

2. The need to bring design thinking and focus back to the human body and scale.

3. Implementing universal design means going beyond tacked on ramps, and compliance to legislation.

4. Integrating universal design in both the process and the solutions from the perspective of equality. Designers’ need an inclusive mindset so that some are not labelled as “special needs”.

5. Involving minorities in urban planning processes thereby giving them a voice because it’s more than physical access.

The researchers found there was a genuine attempt to mainstream universal design into practice. Their paper discusses these five discourses emerging from their research. The title of the paper is Frontrunners” Understanding Universal Design in Architecture.

The researchers found that overall, participants understood that universal design accommodates human diversity, and should be integrated into the process from the outset.

Their paper was presented at the 6th International Universal Design Conference held 7-9 September 2022 in Brescia, Italy. All papers are open access.

Post-occupancy evaluation tool

High-rise buildings at night with brightly coloured lights in the windows. Post-occupancy evaluation tool. Academics like to approach the issue of exclusion by developing guides, tools, and playbooks. But are evaluation tools useful for promoting inclusive design in the built environment?  Perhaps. From the Inclusive Design Team in the UK comes a post-occupancy evaluation tool. That is, a tool to find out if the design actually works.

Existing post occupancy tools usually focus on the performance of the building itself. For example, energy and sustainability measures. Very few measure the building holistically or from a universal design approach.  

An article by Zallio and Clarkson lists the many evaluation tools available internationally. It explains the methods used in the research process. Participants for the workshops in the study were drawn from the ranks of built environment professionals. These participants were deemed to have experience in inclusive design. 

The process for developing the tool included an element of education for participants and eventually the users of the audit tool. The audit takes a snapshot of the building, with its occupants, and offers insights about inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility (IDEA).

The goal of the tool is to provide meaningful information to improve well-being, comfort, and inclusion. It does this by highlighting the points of exclusion and the pain points experienced by users. 

The title of the article is, The inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility audit. A post-occupancy evaluation method to help design the buildings of tomorrow. It’s by Matteo Zallio and P. John Clarkson from the Inclusive Design Team at the University of Cambridge. It’s open access and a relatively easy read for an academic text. 

The key points in the article are: 

      • Inclusive Design is not widely adopted in architectural design practice.
      • There is a scarcity of post-occupancy evaluation methods on inclusion and accessibility.
      • Mapping the building occupant’s perception of inclusion and accessibility is key to designing inclusively.
      • Mixed method evaluation can help professionals to understand points of exclusion in the building.
      • The IDEA audit helps to understand people’s perception of inclusion and accessibility.

From the abstract

There is a general lack of awareness about Inclusive Design among building industry professionals. This is partly due to the scarcity of available tools to evaluate occupancy feedback on inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility. How can we implement an evaluation tool that works for the building industry?

This study aims to inform the development of a post-occupancy method to evaluate Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility (IDEA) in the built environment. 

With the IDEA audit, researchers, building owners, design teams, developers, facility managers, tenants, and organisation leaders can achieve a baseline of understanding of what people feel in regard to inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility. They can clearly identify pockets of inconsistency and use data to decide how to address challenges and points of exclusion.

Note: Unlike many other countries that use the UN term ‘universal design’, organisations and researchers in the UK have maintained their ‘brand’ of ‘inclusive design’. However, these terms mean the same thing – the goal of creating an inclusive world.

Are shopping malls ageist?

Older supermarket shoppers need a positive attitude from employees, functional shopping trolleys, and appropriate placement of products on shelves. Retail stores are public space and they should look good and be functional. Therefore a universal design approach can prevent shopping malls from being ageist.

View inside a shopping mall showing shops on each side of a walkway. Are shopping malls ageist?

Key design elements are: seamless outdoor to indoor access, easy to use shopping trolleys, seeing, finding and reaching products, reading product contents and price tags, and a smooth payment process.

Apart from helpful staff and functional equipment, there are other elements to consider.

  • Circulation systems and spaces: ramps, elevators, escalators, hallways and corridors
  • Entering and exiting: identifying and approaching entrances and exits and moving through them easily
  • Wayfinding: Graphical text, pictograms, maps, photos, diagrams, obvious paths of travel, nodes, edges, zones and districts
  • Obtaining products and services: service desks waiting areas and shops
  • Public amenities: toilets and seating
  • Ambient conditions: noise control, non-glare lighting, adequate temperature and humidity

A paper titled, Design Failure in Indoor Shopping Structures: Unconscious
Ageism and Inclusive Interior Design in Istanbul
explains more. The authors use the 7 principles of universal design as a guide and add another 4. The additional four principles are related to aesthetics, social participation, sustainability and equity. They also found that toilets and seating within supermarkets could do much to improve the shopping experience for older people.

overhead picture of the fresh food section of a supermarket.

As older adults’ need for toilets increases, the time spent in the supermarket declines. So they choose medium or small-sized supermarkets within walking distance of home.

From the abstract

People consciously or unconsciously make older adults feel less important than younger citizens. Older people may experience social and economic stress as well as anxiety, hopelessness, isolation, and depression. Almost all industries are disproportionately focused on developing technological innovations for younger people, not for older adults.

Although there is research on aging populations, research on the indoor design problems that older people encounter every day is scarce. Shopping is a good opportunity for older people to get involved in the community and we should aim to prevent architectural barriers.

A questionnaire was administered to 198 participants about their experiences in supermarkets. The results showed that as the need for rest areas and toilets increases, the time spent by older adults in supermarkets declines.

Additionally, checkout counters and product display shelves show design problems that constitute indoor accessibility issues. This study concludes by looking at issues in the design of indoor shopping area that contribute to ageist attitudes. We call for inclusive shopping environments to address spatial justice and to eliminate ageism.

Inclusive Design Canvas

Many designers know about universal design but don’t yet know what makes a design inclusive and accessible. Two researchers from the Inclusive Design Team in Cambridge embarked on a study to find out how to address this issue. They came up with the Inclusive Design Canvas.

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

Guaranteeing inclusive environments for all is a fundamental step towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goals. The Inclusive Design Canvas is designed to help architects to engage in co-design processes and assess their designs for inclusivity.

The image is from Zallio’s IDEA Toolbox

The key question is, “How is it possible to educate architecture design professionals to reduce points of exclusion for building occupants?” With this in mind, the researchers set out to address the mismatch between design, construction and delivery of a building to meet the principles of inclusion. In short, what resources do architects need to embed inclusive design in the design process?

The researchers ran two workshops with architectural design professionals, many of whom are overloaded with guides and regulations. Consequently, the idea of another design tool was met with ambivalence. But continuing professional development is required and this encouraged participation. This is another case where co-design 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 authors explain the process and the outcomes that lead to the design tool. The key point is that inclusion needs to be embedded within the design process, not left until the end. It also needs to be incorporated into design software. The researchers hope to populate the tool with good examples in the future.

From the abstract

Designing accessible and inclusive buildings is essential if they are to provide enjoyable and inspiring experiences for all their occupants. Many architectural design professionals have a lack of awareness of the aspects to consider when designing. This is limiting the uptake of inclusive design.

This study involved expert stakeholders and provides evidence for the demand to create an Inclusive Design Canvas. This is a design template for building industry professionals to help them embed inclusive design in the design process.

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.

Practitioner views of designing inclusively

The concepts of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion have evolved from different fields of endeavour and therefore there is no single way to explain it. Consequently, debating the differences between inclusive and universal design does little to progress the cause. In the end they mean the same thing. We need to get practical. So, checking in with practitioners and their views of designing inclusively is a good start.

Lots of different coloured words reading define. Designing inclusively.

A new paper, Aspects of Designing Inclusively from Practitioner Perspectives, reveals how practitioners relate to the concepts and the language. The author begins by articulating their take on the terminology, and then moves on to the study.

The first thing to note is that this paper comes from the UK where the term “inclusive” is preferred. Most countries use the term “universal” in keeping with the United Nations terminology. However, many writers in the UK like to differentiate between the two words.

The fact that they had difficulty recruiting participants is revealing in itself. Thirty organisations were approached and only 6 agreed to participate. However, this small group provided some useful insights.

The author makes the comment that designing inclusively is an approach to design, which it is, rather than an achievable goal. This is one reason Steinfeld and Maisel developed the 8 Goals of Universal Design. It’s also why universal design practitioners understand you start with principles and create the practical. It’s not a checklist.

Consequently, attempting to delineate differences in inclusive design and universal design is counter-productive. The following quote can be applied to inclusive design, design-for-all, human-centred design and universal design. We are in the era of co-design and continuous improvement. The concept of universal design has evolved since the 1990s

” Inclusion can be viewed as a continually evolving concept addressed incrementally from one project to the next as expertise develops and advancements continue.”

Page 515

From the conclusion

“Their insights provided an up-to-date account of inclusive architectural and design practices. Still, their perspectives were not always aligned. This is expected as each person holds different framings and object worlds during a project. For instance, it was expressed that a single mainstream design suitable to every person was not realistic.”

Participants said they prefer bespoke designs, arguing that it is better to design for the individual rather than attend to the mass market with one design. Participants also disliked the lack of quantifiable information.

From the abstract

The concept of inclusion in design is increasingly well known and often recognizes value in a greater diversity of people. Still, uptake is said to be limited in practice. The theoretical landscape provides several definitions and concerns, but they are often paradoxical. Rather than disentangle theory, this research turns to practitioners who design inclusively.

This research explores the ways people advocate for inclusion in design projects, prevailing aspects in the negotiations within multi-stakeholder projects, the motivations and mindsets that drive these aspects, and the opportunities they create for the improved uptake of inclusion.

These explorations highlight the value of including a more diverse group of individuals in the negotiations of a design project. Conflicting perspectives on effective uptake prevail in both practice and theory.

How can Melbourne be more accessible?

A Melbourne street scene showing pedestrians and a tram.

Melbourne is one of the most ‘liveable’ cities in the world and the Victorian Government wants to keep it that way. But Melbourne can’t be truly liveable if it isn’t inclusive and accessible for all. Infrastructure projects, buildings, open space, and transportation need to link together seamlessly. 

Melbourne has done some good work. Retrofitting tactile footpath indicators and Auslan-interpreted performances are a start. But steep ramps at railway stations are still a problem and Federation Square has a multitude of stairs and rough tiles. An article in the Smart Cities Library says that developers are not on the same page as the Victorian Government. 

Front cover of the report.

A report from the University of Melbourne looks at some of the issues for people with disability. Academics worked with City of Melbourne staff and disability advocates to brainstorm ideas that would work. They assessed these ideas to see which were the most important and feasible.

Transportation was the key issue across all disability types, and issues with footpaths were high on the list. This links with another report about Victoria’s Public Transport Journey Planner.

Transportation is key

 Victoria’s Public Transport Journey Planner enables travellers to plan ahead for their journey. But does it work for wheelchair users? 

Distance view of a major train station showing platforms and trains.

Three case studies of train stations in suburban Melbourne show that in spite of a policy aim of going beyond the Transport Standards to take a whole of journey approach, there is some way to go when it comes to full accessibility. 

A nicely written report with a detailed methodology that can be used as the basis of further studies across Australia. The title is: “Does information from Public Transport Victoria’s Journey Planner align with real life accessibility for people in wheelchairs?”  Perhaps another case of bureaucrats not actually knowing what constitutes accessibility? Sometimes it is more than “access”.

Front cover Melbourne Transport Strategy 2030

Melbourne published their Transport Strategy 2030 which has updated information. There’s a lot about bikes but not much about inclusion and accessibility.

The neuro inclusive city

A graphic with lots of stick figures. Above, in the middle is an umbrella shape and underneath the stick figures are in different colours. Neuro diversity.

The problem with standards for accessible places and spaces is they don’t keep up with current thinking. Consequently there are no standards for the neuro inclusive city.

In Australia, standards focus on mobility, vision and hearing. Consequently they don’t cover invisible disabilities or health conditions. That’s why it’s dangerous to think that meeting legislated standards is sufficient to create access and inclusion for everyone.

In the absence of standards, which are based on minimums, we now have a plethora of guidelines. These either focus on a disability, such as Down syndrome, or a built space, such as a playspace. Guidelines are not mandated and so they often disappear into cyber-space or gather dust on a shelf. But that doesn’t stop more attempts at guidelines and design principles.

There is a growing awareness that a significant portion of the population is neurodiverse. This term captures people who appear to have different behaviours and/or have a specific diagnosis such as autism or ADHD. Sensory factors such as noise and crowds, pose barriers for some people who are neurodiverse. However, these factors are rarely considered in urban planning and design. Until now.

Natasha Mickovski tackles the issues in her Master of Architecture thesis. Her thesis is comprehensive with drawings and case studies illustrating her ideas and key points. Of interest is her adaptation of the 7 Principles of Universal Design.

It’s good to see these principles taken as a starting point and adapted to suit this context. To this end, Mickovski presents her Enabling Design Guidelines which are briefly outlined below.

Enabling Design Guidelines

1. Spatial Organization: Spatial organization is an integral part of neurodiverse design. People who are neurodiverse require a continuous and organized loop of circulation. The use of common and repetitive elements provide a sense of order which allows for them to easily navigate through a building. Repetition within the design also promotes a point of predictability.

2. Spatial Character: A variety of types of spaces such as alcoves, nooks, refuges or clusters are essential. The colours, patterns, and textures are also important for creating a sensorial environment.

3. Lighting, Acoustics, Thermal Quality: Dimmed lighting in low-stimulation zones is good for rational decision-making tasks. These spaces also need a high level of acoustic control. Adjust thermal qualities through a high-performance building envelope. Include spaces such as naturally ventilated atriums or outdoor terraces.

4. Ease of Transition: Wide corridors are good transitional zones which can be used for occupational therapy and movement breaks. It is also important to provide enough space within the corridors for programmable seating options.

5. Sensory Grouping: High stimulus zones such as the music room, makerspace, flex space, café, and marketplace should be grouped together. Group together low stimulus zones such as counselling centres, study rooms, reading zones, and studios.

6. Escape / Reset Zones: Retreat areas and alcoves are essential in the overall planning of a neuro-inclusive building. These are important places for people when they feel overwhelmed.

The title of the thesis is, Design Enabled: The Everyday Refuge for a Neuro-Inclusive City. This is a 15MB document downloadable from the Laurentian University website.

A drawing showing design elements in a learning area.
Neurodiverse design elements in an activity room.
Graphics from the thesis


One of the most pressing issues within the built environment is the ever-evolving conversation of accessibility and its relationship to obsolete building standards from the past.

Standards such as the Ontario Building Code and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) provide insufficient solutions to users with invisible disabilities, particularly the underrecognized realm of neurodiversity.

This thesis explores the possibility for a new set of design guidelines, adopting principles to enable the users’ senses and, in turn, create a neuro-inclusive environment. It also presents the design of a neuroinclusive library centre with a secondary urban park to mitigate the challenges neurodivergents experience at both a human and city-wide scale.

By designing a community-oriented project within the already-established arts and cultural hub of downtown Sudbury, this thesis creates a network of inclusive, user-centered, and sensorial design that can begin to decode the issue of accessibility

People and planet: towards healthy urbanism

View from high building in Brisbane overlooking building roofs and the Brisbane river and bridges. Jacaranda trees can be seen in the street. It's about people and planet.

Cities are expanding year on year and the design of urban environments needs to cope with this. That means urban planners and designers have to think about both people and planet. 

Environmental degradation and population inequalities require a shift in understanding the nature of healthy urbanism. We need policies and decisions that positively shape neighbourhoods and buildings. That’s what Helen Pineo argues in her paper on an urban design and a planning framework. 

The WHO and UN are working with property development and urban planning professionals on the topic of healthy urbanism. Pineo notes that not all built environment professionals accept responsibility for safeguarding health and sustainability. 

It appears that the architecture profession is divided on this topic. Some say it is not their responsibility and others say it is time for them to act. 

Pineo’s article discusses the state of play internationally and reports on her findings. Structural barriers to health and a reliance on “lifestyle choices” is not effective going forward. We need broader solutions, and we need them urgently. 

Distant view across Sydney Harbour looking South. Probably taken from Tarongo Zoo

To the extent that it is possible, all design and policy decisions should be inclusive, equitable and sustainable.

The THRIVES Framework

THRIVES is the acronym of Towards Healthy uRbanism: InclusiVe Equitable Sustainable. Pineo presents the Framework as a new way of conceptualising the connection between health and built environments. 

Circular graphic showing planetary, ecosystem and local health elements and how they are connected.

There are three core principles, inclusion, equity and sustainability.

The Framework links planet, environment and people. 

The title of the article is, Towards healthy urbanism: inclusive, equitable and sustainable (THRIVES) – an urban design and planning framework from theory to praxis. It’s open access. 


This article promotes a new framework – Towards Healthy uRbanism: InclusiVe Equitable Sustainable (THRIVES) – that extends previous conceptualisations and reorients focus towards the existential threat of environmental breakdown and the social injustice created through inequitable and exclusive urban governance and design processes and outcomes.

The Framework was developed through synthesising knowledge from research and practice, and by testing this new conceptualisation in a participatory workshop. Ongoing research is exploring implementation of the Framework in practice.

If widely adopted, this Framework may contribute towards achieving the goals of sustainable development through a focus on increasing human health and wellbeing in urban development.

Retire the retirement village

The Longevity by Design banner in pink and purple.Age-friendly communities where people of all ages live, work and play could be the way of the future. That means the desirability of age-segregated living could be on the way out. Many people will live 30 years after the age of 65 years. By 2030 all baby boomers will have turned 65 and Gen X will be joining the older cohort.  It’s time to retire the retirement village concept according to an article in The Conversation. This is based on feedback from older people in a Longevity By Design Challenge. This means we have to re-think the notion of retirement and approaches to urban design.

The Design Challenge asked:

How do we best leverage the extra 30 years of life and unleash the social and economic potential of people 65+ to contribute to Australia’s prosperity?

Sixteen cross-disciplinary creative teams considered longevity in the context of buildings and neighbourhoods. Together the participants concluded that design for older people is inclusive design. No matter how old you are you still want the same things for a good life. That means autonomy and choice, purpose, good health and financial security.

The title of the article is, Retire the retirement village – the wall and what’s behind it is so 2020, and explains how the challenge was run and some of the findings. Key points emerging from the challenge were inclusive infrastructure, people of all ages together, and a mobility “ecosystem” made up of different types of transport options. The underpinning principles turned out to be age-friendly communities, something the World Health Organization has promoted for more than ten years.

Boomers are over them

A scene from the charrette where people are sitting round a table discussing their project.

The ABC also reported on the Design Challenge and how to prepare and adapt Australian cities to capitalise on our longevity bonus. It seems walled and gated age-segregated enclaves might have had their day. Instead, the future might hold more age-inclusive neighbourhoods where older people continue to contribute into late age. So, no more need for doom and gloom about population ageing.

As an urban design challenge the design of homes suited for all ages was not included. The ABC article is titled, Retirement villages have had their day: Baby boomers are rethinking retirement

Banner for the Longevity by Design challenge in 2021.A second Longevity by Design session was held in 2021 with the theme, Feels Like Home. This one was focused on aged care and the key points are in the video below. 

Urban planning for population longevity

A row of two storey houses painted in different pastel colours.Urban designers are potential champions for improvements for population ageing. That is a key theme in an article that proposes ways for helping older people stay put in their home, and if not, in their community. The article discusses current innovations to make neighbourhoods and homes more supportive both physically and socially. These include: enriching neighbourhoods, providing collective services, building all-age neighbourhoods, creating purpose-built supportive housing.

The title of the article is, “Improving housing and neighborhoods for the vulnerable: older people, small households, urban design, and planning”. Open access available  from SpringerLink,  or  via ResearchGate.

From the abstract

Currently preferences and policies aim to help older people to stay in their existing homes. However, the majority of homes in the U.S. and many other countries are not designed to support advanced old age. Also, they are not located to easily provide support and services.

The paper examines the existing range of innovations to make neighbourhoods and homes more supportive, physically, socially, and in terms of services. These include: enriching neighbourhoods, providing collective services, building all-age neighbourhoods, creating purpose-built supportive housing, developing small scale intergenerational models, and engaging mobility, delivery, and communications innovations.


Designing with autism in mind

Floor Plan, Blueprint, House, Home. Designing for autism.Well designed buildings support people with physical impairment, but what about people with sensory issues or cognitive conditions? Shelly Dival argues that designing with autism in mind supports people with autism in education, work and home environments. 

Dival’s Churchill Fellowship report outlines building features requiring further research, including design theories, methods and outcomes. Her findings are also featured in an architecture magazine. Dival’s key recommendation is for best practice guidelines, and updating policies to include neurological access.  

One of her insights was the crossover between autism and other neurological conditions including dementia. Designing for neurodiversity rather than specific conditions may be an effective future-proofing strategy that supports everyone. That’s similar to the approach adopted by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in their Guidelines on cognitive accessibility, based on the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework.  

Autism: Is it a disorder?

A young woman sits on a boardwalk next to water. She has her knees drawn up and is resting her head on her arms and knees. It depicts a level of loneliness or sadness. Autism and the social model of disability. People who are neurodiverse often struggle to shed the the idea that they have some kind of disorder. A medical diagnosis is part of the problem – they become a category, a label. This is particularly the case for people with autism. And there are no two people alike. But what they do share in common is a relatively high suicide rate. Why would this be the case?

Richard Woods explores how the social model of disability can be, and should be, applied to this group. But it might not be enough. Negative language is a major barrier to inclusion based on the medical diagnosis label. Woods argues that the social model fails to explain how any disability is experienced by individuals. Categorisation under a label is limiting and does little to shift community attitudes and improve individuals’ mental health. In conclusion, the paper calls for the “full emancipation of the autistic population”. An interesting read.

The title of the paper is, Exploring how the social model of disability can be reinvigorated: in response to Jonathan Levitt

Autism isn’t a disorder

A graphic and logo for Autism Awareness. Autism and the social model of disability. Neurodiverse advocate Siena Castellon, wrote a book for teenage girls based on her own experiences. In a New Scientist article Siena relates the common misconception that she should look different in some way. Because she doesn’t, most people think that she can’t be autistic. This is not a compliment. You can see more of Siena’s story in the New Scientist article, Autism isn’t a defect – here’s why we should embrace neurodiversity. There are more links in the article for further reading. 

Voices of autism in a book

Front cover of the text book.The autism research field has changed a lot in the last 20 years. We now know the impact the research process itself has on people with autism. With this in mind, a new version of a text book has sections written by autistic contributors from all walks of life. 

There is a separate link to the discussion on how the authors went about including people with the lived experience of autism. This link also gives a short chapter by chapter review of the book’s content.

The title of the book is, Autism: A new introduction to psychological theory and current debate. It’s by Sue Fletcher-Watson and Francesca Happe. 


Accessibility Toolbar