Luminance Contrast: How to measure it?

Grey steps with no contrast nosing blends into the grey paving.
Grey steps leading to a grey footpath.

Visual contrast, or luminance contrast, is a key feature of universal design, but how well can we measure it? It’s a mainstream issue and something designers need to consider from the outset. It’s one thing to know the importance of visual contrast, but knowing how to measure it is another.

The glare from the doorway backlights the sign to the toilets which is mounted near the ceiling and hard to see.
Backlight makes toilet sign hard to see

Penny Galbraith explained the issues in her presentation at UD2021 Conference. For most people, vision is their most dominant sense. About 80% of our perception, learning, cognition and activities use visual cues. Contrast helps us detect objects from the background and to perceive distance.

Inadequate contrast leads to confusion and difficulty negotiating the environment, even if only temporarily.  Australian Standards require a certain level of luminance contrast in the built environment. But most access consultants use their own eyes as the measuring tool. Is this good enough? Probably not.

A shopping mall with a shiny floor reflecting rows of lights from the ceiling. It looks very confusing.
A photo shows the confusing visual cues

Penny took delegates through the two main measuring instruments and there is good reason for not using them. One is costly and the other is heavy and bulky. Then she introduced a free app for a smart phone called Get Luminance. While there is still more work to do on establishing the validity of the app, it gives a better guide than a guess by eyesight.

There is much to consider in Penny’s presentation and paper and it is good to see that there is a solution. Photographs are two dimensional and often provide an indication of poor contrast. If the place is unfamiliar it is sometimes difficult to make out certain features. For example, a stainless steel sign against a concrete wall. 

Norwegian study on staircases

Grand staircase in a heritage building showing a blue carpeted staircase and a mural at the top of the flight. As our populations age we will have more people experiencing low vision. This means that contrasts between objects will become an increasingly important factor in negotiating the built environment.

Although standards stipulate a certain luminance contrast and levels of light (lux) for buildings, how are they measured, who measures them, and what are they measured with?

This issue was investigated by a team in Norway using staircases for the case studies. They found that the tools used by builders and planners vary, and this results in different contrast and light readings for the same staircase. Other variables were also found to influence the readings, such as reflection or glare from overhead lighting. Sunny or cloudy conditions, the shadow of the measurer when measuring, and different angles and positions of the meter all bring different results.

stairs-red-and-blue-1611679__180The findings and conclusion of the study raise an important question: Are the staircases as bad as they seem in terms of not meeting the legislative requirements? Or are the requirements too difficult to fulfil? The team concluded that the answer lies with a representative group of people with low vision guiding them on understanding usability. Another case of standards being useful but not entirely effective – the users have the answer once again.

The article, Planning and Measuring Luminance Contrast in Staircases contains charts, graphs and pictures that illustrate their methods and results. The article is free to download.

L.D. Houck1 , K. Gundersen, O. Strengen: Universal Design 2016: Learning from the Past, Designing for the Future. H. Petrie et al. (Eds.)

Seeing the Light

Photo showing visual distortion and reflections in a glass doorWhat is luminance contrast and how do you measure it? The non-technical explanation is the contrast of the light reflected on one surface compared with that of another, adjoining or adjacent surface. For example the contrast between the kitchen bench and the cupboard below and the wall behind.

Contrasts provide good visual cues and create greater safety especially in areas like the kitchen and bathroom. Lee Wilson lists the many things in and around the home and public buildings that need such contrast. He explains in more detail everyday items that we might not think of: coat hooks, locker handles, buttons, switches, toilet seats, floors/walls, and more.

There’s a more technical look at luminance contrast and compliance with standards on the EqualAccess website. It covers some of the most common errors and where things go wrong.  


Ageing well in suburbia

A single story home viewed from the back yard. A woman reaches up into a small tree and dog sits nearby. Ageing well in the bluefields.
Image by Damian Madigan

In a previous post Guy Luscombe alerted us to some forthcoming articles in ArchitectureAu. The first is by Damian Madigan and is titled, Ageing well in the Bluefields.  The context is suburban infill sites. The problem is how to increase housing supply and diversity while maintaining the existing character of the area. Madigan comes up with models based on the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. 

The overall aim is to support ageing in place and multi-generational living.

Madigan describes suburbs that have an established character and high financial values as ‘blue’. They are often exempt from density increases and also housing diversity. 

Madigan explains a collaborative design research project that developed ‘bluefield housing models’. The models are based on four different allotment sizes, small, medium, large and extra large. They are also based on Livable Housing Australia gold or platinum levels. Floor plans are included in the article. Madigan explains:

“Underpinning the designs is what I call the “bluefield housing model,” which:

        1. denies subdivision of the block, instead creating a design-led whole-of-site approach
        2. retains and adapts original housing into smaller accommodation
        3. creates new housing through leveraging the existing pattern of alterations and additions
        4. creates all housing in a flat hierarchy rather than as “accessory” dwelling units
        5. arranges the housing around shared landscape capable of retaining or developing large trees.

Ageing well in the bluefields is on the ArchitectureAU website and will be of interest to building designers and smaller developers. 

Economics of meaningful accessibility

long view of a Perth city mall with shops and cafes under awnings and trees for shade. Tall buildings are in the background. Economics of meaningful accessibility.How can we measure the economic benefits of designing our built environments to ensure access for everyone? Good question. Tourism has a solid body of knowledge on the economics of inclusion, and housing studies cite savings for health budgets. However, we need a benchmark to show clear and direct economic benefits for stakeholders and society. But it has to be meaningful accessibility, not just minimal compliance to standards. That’s the argument in a paper from Canada.

 An article in the the Journal of Accessibility and Design for All has a good look at the literature on the subject. Research papers agree that there are overall economic benefits in making products and services more accessible. But we still need a way of getting hold of data and finding a good method for measuring. That’s the key argument in the paper.

The title of the paper is, Measuring economic benefits of accessible spaces to achieve ‘meaningful’ access in the built environment: A review of recent literature.

Meaningful accessibility

Meaningful accessibility is about how the built environment enables everyone to participate in social and economic life. As the authors say,meaningful accessibility and universal design go hand in hand—meaningful accessibility is a goal of universal design”. They also note that accessible environments are perceived as an altruistic intention rather than a business choice. That is, the notion of special designs for a small group of people who need them. 

The aim of the paper is to draw attention to the gap in the research in areas such as planning, urban design and architecture. A strong voice from users of places and spaces calling for change remains essential. So too, is a change in discourse about disability being outside the frame of ‘normal’. 

Concluding comments

In the concluding comments the authors say meaningful accessibility is harder to sell than green buildings. And that’s despite reduced material costs and energy savings. From a human rights perspective accessibility shouldn’t be an option – it’s a fundamental requirement. 

Whether a better or more rigorous framework for economic analysis will win the day is still questionable. The political context is far more complex. The evidence in Australia on the economic benefits of accessible housing was not sufficient to sway all jurisdictions. The argument that “it costs too much” is consistent with the narrative of disability being outside the frame of normal. 

Editor’s note: The argument for change is not about economics, it’s about political will. It was only when the Victorian and Queensland governments took the lead on accessible housing that the building code was changed. People say to me that we should be explaining the economic benefits if we want accessibility and inclusion. Sadly, the many economic studies have fallen on stony ground and remain silent and ignored. 

This website has more than 20 articles on the economics of inclusion and universal design. Use the search box with “economic” to find them.

Urban sustainability and universal design

A distance picture of a three column building in Singapore with trees and people in the foreground. Sustainability and universal design.Singapore has taken sustainability seriously. As an island state with limited land, every square metre has to count. Singapore meets high standards for urban sustainability and has a strong commitment to universal design. However, universal design is not included as a sustainability indicator. One researcher thinks it should. 

Adaku Jane Echendu appraises Singapore’s sustainability measures in a new article. The aim is to show how other cities might learn from the ‘Singapore Model’. She argues that universal design for inclusion should be included in the list of Urban Sustainable Indicators. 

Urban sustainability is about vibrant cities that enhance the quality of life for residents. At the same time it ensures the availability of resources for future generations. A sustainable city is compact and promotes efficiency, innovations and production capacity. The aim is to do this with minimal environmental impact. That’s the built part. The other part is the wellbeing of citizens.

A sustainable city is also a healthy and secure place for people to grow, find work and housing. It also has good public transport, public participation, and good health and education systems. Good governance makes it all possible. 

Sustainability and universal design

There are three commonly used pillars to Urban Sustainability Indicators: social, economic and environmental. But there are many additional measures used across the world. Echendu includes universal design for inclusivity in her appraisal of these. She claims universal design is a key element of best practice in urban sustainability.

Sustainability was at the core of the country’s design before it became a global concern. Singapore was also an early adopter of universal design. Their universal design and accessibility code went beyond new builds to include retrofits. Part of the drive for this is their ageing population.

The weaknesses of the Singapore model are reliance on importing food. To mitigate this, rooftop farming is becoming more intensive. With global temperatures set to rise further, urban heat is another issue. Public participation in governance is improving, but needs more work. There are still pockets of poor who battle with getting adequate food and healthcare. 

The title of the article is, Critical appraisal of an example of best practice in urban sustainability.  Using the term “universal design for inclusion” is a good way of expressing what universal design is about for the uninitiated.  

Front cover of the UD guide.Other articles on Singapore and universal design are:

From barrier free to universal design: Singapore’s experience 

Universal Design Guidelines from Singapore 

Universal Design the Singapore way  


Cinema, user experience, and public space

Front cover of the publication showing a long gradual flight of steps in a street with a travellator running beside it. Cinema experience, public space.Three papers from the International Journal of Architecture and Planning address universal design. Once you scroll through the usual context-setting paragraphs on the principles of universal design, the research itself has something to offer. The articles are on cinema experiences, user experience and public space 

Disability and Otherization: Readings on Cinema in The Light of UD Principles. The study explains the relationship between architecture and disability in cinema, and how it is portrayed. Using 6 well-known films that include othering, the researchers apply the 7 principles of universal design to analyse how disability is portrayed. Interesting way of dissecting societal attitudes and how such films might impact on social attitudes perhaps reinforcing prejudices.

User-Involved Universal Design Experience in the Space, Product and Service Development Process, concludes that universal design is about multiple users regardless of the design discipline. The aim was to encourage students to design beyond specialised “disability products” and to integrate a wide spectrum of users.

Public Space and Accessibility examines pedestrian ways including ramps. Specific dimensions make this a guide largely for wheelchair access. Car parking and bus stops are also covered. The article reports on a workshop they ran on universal design. It ends with the note that other disabilities including cognitive diversity now need to be considered. Perhaps of most interest to access consultants to compare with Australian standards.  

Accessibility of public space

A pedestrian zone in a city street. Accessibility of public space.Infrastructure built before disability activists gained legal recognition of their human rights is often inaccessible. Newer buildings have basic access according to the standards imposed by governments. However, standards are no guarantee for full access for everyone. Consequently, urban researchers continue to write in the hope of effecting change for the accessibility of public space. 

A chapter in the book, Future of the City, is yet another offering about universal design and how accessibility is for everyone. This one includes a chart with solutions for typical barriers. These solutions are prescriptive with dimensions and measurements. The chart covers paths of travel, vertical travel, spatial elements and fittings, and transportation infrastructure.

Photographs and good examples illustrate the points made. The information is useful for councils and capital works staff. It fits neatly with the Age Friendly Checklist for Councils.

The title of the open access chapter is Accessibility of pubic space. Although there are some language differences in disability terms, the article is easy to read and makes some clear points. For example,

“For many people leading an independent life may be fully conditional on the accessibility of public spaces. Through accessible places, such people have a chance to participate in the social and economic life of the country or local society.”

“It is estimated that up to 30% of society have permanent or temporary limitations in mobility or perception. Many of these people do not have the status of a disabled person. Therefore, it can be said that accessibility concerns all of us.”

The chapter concludes with a comment about the gradual change in the accessibility of public buildings. However, there is more work to do. 

Inclusive Design Canvas for architectural design

Three men in hard hats stand on a building site looking at architectural design plans. It’s true that our built environments are becoming more accessible. Wheelchair users in particular are experiencing those improvements. However, design thinking is locked into “disability access” in building codes which remain focused on mobility impairments.  Consequently, architectural design practice hasn’t embraced the wider concept of inclusion for everyone. So, if we are serious about inclusion we need to embed inclusion into architectural design education. 

Matteo Zallio carried out a study to find out what inclusive design can bring to the building industry. He reports on his findings and presents some strategies for future-proofing buildings. One of these is the Inclusive Design Canvas. 

Zallio set out to identify the challenges in the design process and to test attitudes to inclusive practice. One of his findings was that education about inclusion should start in primary school and be woven into all courses throughout school and university. 

User Journey

Mapping the user journey is key and that means designing from the inside out.  That is, think about who will be using the building before beginning the design process. Consider features that influence how brains and bodies interact, connect the senses and cognitive perception. Once again, designing inclusively begins at the very early stages of the design process. To help with this, Zallio devised the Inclusive Design Canvas.

The Inclusive Design Canvas

Zallio proposes a strategic design template to help professionals with the inclusive design process. There are three elements: User journey; User capabilities; and User needs. Within each of these are physical, sensory and cognitive conditions. The chart below is available for downloaded separately

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

Concluding remarks

To design inclusively, we need inclusive design education, use of appropriate terminology, and create diverse teams with knowledge of inclusive design. Maintaining inclusive features across the life of the building is also key. The Inclusive Design Canvas maps the user journey to consider the diversity of users. Post-occupancy evaluation will also inform future designs. 

Key points in the article

    • Inclusive Design is still not widely adopted in architectural design practice.
    • Building inclusively should embrace inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility.
    • Education is key to help foster inclusion in architectural design practice.
    • User journey mapping can improve the Inclusive Design process.
    • Post-occupancy user feedback can help architects to better design for inclusion.

The title of the article is, Inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility in the built environment: A study of architectural design practice. This research paper has more than the usual text about the issues of implementation. It provides in-depth understanding of the practical barriers and a tool to help practitioners and educators. 

Matteo Zallio did the research and John Clarkson supervised the study. They are both part of the Inclusive Design Team at the University of Cambridge. Previous work has focused on product design and the highly regarded Inclusive Design Toolkit


Universal design and public libraries

view of university of seville library with students sitting at desks. bookcases are in the background. Public libraries have more to offer than just books. Some people stay to read and browse, and others use meetings rooms for their community groups. The role of librarians is to help people to find what they are looking for. They are also keepers of local knowledge and services. People of all ages and backgrounds come and go. That means we are exposed to people with different values and interests. Potentially, that makes libraries a place to forge social inclusion. That’s where universal design comes in. 

Gerd Berget’s writes on the theme of public libraries as places where diverse groups are visible to each other. She argues that public libraries have the potential for increasing respect for each other and thereby reducing social exclusion. In her paper, Berget proposes that the way to introduce more diversity into libraries is to take a universal design approach. 

The paper begins with a history of disability and social justice. The role of public libraries as a physical space follows. The final part of the paper discusses the purpose of universal design and it’s role in social emancipation. Berget discusses the seven principles of universal design and how they apply to libraries in the final part of the paper.

The title the paper is, Universal Design as a Premise for making Public Libraries into Low-intensive Meeting Places. It’s a nicely written piece and good for newcomers to the field of universal design. It covers the philosophy, social issues of disability and the practicalities of universal design. 

Berget concludes

“Although full inclusion is not yet achieved, public libraries have a great potential in increasing the social justice and reducing oppression. To achieve that, librarians need to be aware of and engaged in making (and keeping) the libraries into low-intensive meeting places. There is also a need for more user engagement in the design of the public libraries, both regarding buildings, collections and services. Finally, it is important to a preserve the public spaces that facilitate convivial encounters”.

Design guide for accessible public spaces

Cover of the Guide with lots of little pictures of place in small squares like a chequerboard. Design guide for accessible public spaces.The Illustrated Technical Guide to the Accessibility Standard for the Design of Public Spaces published in 2014 by GAATES (Global Alliance on Accessible Technologies and Environments) is comprehensive. GAATES is based in Canada and refers to the Americans with Disabilities Act for standards, but they also include best practice features and design considerations. This means the design guide is applicable almost anywhere. 

The guide is available as a Google Docs version or you can view it online. The Table of Contents lists: Paths of Travel, Recreational Trails, Beach Access Routes, Outdoor Public Use Eating Areas, Outdoor Play Spaces, Accessible Parking, Obtaining Service in Public Spaces, and Maintaining Accessible Public Spaces.

Ageing is more than a health issue

A view of George Street Sydney showing pedestrians walking across the mall created by the light rail system. Ageing is not just a health issue.
Picture by Ashleigh Hughes

Guidelines, toolkits and policy frameworks related to population ageing have been around for a while. But are they being used? Ageing is more than a health issue – it’s an urban planning issue as well. COVID-19 has made this very apparent. A case study based on Greater Sydney highlights the issues. 

The authors discuss an “ageing city” in the first part of the article where they focus on Australian data on ageing and dementia. The second part of the article provides more information on what is working well and what needs to change. The article uses data, state and city policies to assess how well Greater Sydney is doing as a city for older people. 

Key themes

Sydney has many blue and green spaces that are great for mental and physical health. However, these are inequitably distributed across eastern and western parts of the city. Access to shops and services likewise. 

Active and social places are for the most part good for everyone. Quiet places are important too especially for people with dementia. Feeling safe is related to how active an older person is in their community. The more they get out and about the less worried they are about crime. 

The researchers report on interviews with health and planning professionals, and provide several first hand quotes. 

Key themes from the interviews included: the need for intergenerational spaces, considering mobility and distance between key services, and better access to gardens. Familiar landscapes and architectural landmarks provide a sense of security along with quiet ‘slow spaces’. Ageing and dementia could get lost when nested under policy words such as “liveability” and “universal design”.

Many things are possible and easy to do if planning and health professionals work together. That seems to be the way to go. 

The last part of the article discusses the many toolkits, guidelines and policy frameworks for age-friendly cities. They range from international policies through to the work of the Greater Sydney Commission. The article concludes with recommendations.

The title of the article is, Age-friendly urban design and mental health in Sydney, Australia: a city case study. It is published in the Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health Edition 7: Aging City. There are other articles on the same topic in this edition. 

Authors are, Safia Moore, Associate at Arup, and Georgia Vitale, Practice Leader at Grimshaw.