Luminance contrast: a slippery concept

The Technical Insights section of the Autumn 2023 edition of Access Insights is about luminance contrast. This is a hot topic of discussion because it is a slippery concept. What is it and how do you measure it are the starter questions, followed by why do we need it.

This image, courtesy the Egress Group, shows discrete silver tactiles against a dark red carpet. The light grey stair nosings are also contrasted against a black carpet.

Silver discrete tactile indicators on a red carpet on a stair landing showing good luminance contrast.

Howard Moutrie explains that luminance is the amount of light reflected from a surface. The contrast is the amount of light reflected from abutting surfaces. For example the wall and the floor. This is not the same as colour contrast. Red and green are stark contrasts but will often provide the same amount of luminance. Therefore there is not luminance contrast.

So how do you determine luminance contrast? This is where it becomes slippery. Are you measuring this in a laboratory under controlled conditions? Are you measuring it on the street on a rainy day? Or are you measuring it a nighttime? An appendix to the Australian Standard (AS 1428.4.1) is part of the standard with the most up to date calculation.

Moutrie goes on to explain how testing on tactile indicators is not the same as testing on other surfaces. Then there is the issue of how different instruments provide different measurements for the same thing.

The original requirement for a 30% contrast was based on an integrated tactile where the whole surface provided the contrast. Individual tactiles, such as individual stainless steel ones, are supposed to have 45% contrast. Moutrie is critical of the way luminance is measured but the industry has geared up to meet these measurements. He says more research is still needed.

Why do we need it?

People with low vision need the contrast to navigate the environment, including at home. It helps distinguish a door from a wall, and the wall from the floor. It’s also good for people with impaired visual perception. For example not being able to see a white toilet pan in an all white bathroom.

There is more on this topic in, Luminance contrast: how do you measure it? With the cost of measuring apparatus, much is left to doing by eye. Or relying on manufacturers claims.

The title of Moutrie’s article on page 22 is Luminance Contrast – is what you see, what you get?

Design for the autistic community

The Autumn 2023 Access Insight magazine has an article by John Van der Have on designing for autism. He introduces a design guide by Magda Mostafa and her work on design for the autistic community.

Van der Have begins his article with an older medical description of autism (ASD) and some statistics. As many people know, sensory overload is common for people within the neurodivergent community. Too many sights, sounds, smells and tactile experiences can cause stress and anxiety. That’s why the choice of building materials and systems need additional consideration.

Minimising noise and unwanted sounds through good acoustic design is a vital criterion. But how much acoustic insulation is enough, and how much is too much? Questions such as these have implications for construction costs.

A man is placing headphones over his ears. He is facing away from the camera. The background is blurred from traffic or public transport.

Biophilic principles are beneficial for everyone, but for the autistic community, these elements can enhance their sense of wellbeing. Natural lighting, natural ventilation and views of nature are especially helpful.

Van der Have discusses educational settings and a time-out room where children can still learn in a supportive environment. A calming space at home, as well as a room fitted out to suit a child’s preferences is also a good idea.

As we begin to understand autism and neurodiversity, it’s possible there will be moves to regulate suitable designs. However, regulation should not be needed if designers take action themselves to be more inclusive. Van der Have’s article is on page 18 of Access Insight. It is titled, Design for People on the Autism Spectrum and introduces the work of Magda Mostafa.

Autism friendly design guide

Magda Mostafa, an architect and researcher, developed a design framework for incorporating the needs of the neurodivergent community. The framework is based on 7 design concepts:

  • Acustics
  • Spatial Sequencing
  • Escape
  • Compartmentalisation
  • Transition
  • Sensory Zoning
  • Safety

In Cities People Love, Mostafa talks about her experiences as an architect working as an autism design consultant. She says designers have to rethink the tools they need. A human-centred approach to design, such as focus groups, assumes everyone is able to speak and participate. She wants to see the principles from the Autism Friendly University Design Guide applied more widely.

The Autism Friendly University Design Guide was developed in collaboration with the Dublin City University and is applicable in other settings. The first half of the 116 page detailed guide covers the research, and the second has the guiding principles. Mostafa’s work is worth following for anyone interested in designing for neurodivergence.

This edition of Access Insight also has an article on water safety for autistic children on page 4.

Healthy living tool

Staying active and being healthy is a good thing we are told. So, what can designers do to encourage active healthy living? And does it go beyond the level of the built environment? How can we encourage people to venture out of their homes and engage in “healing” activity? Two researchers have devised a multidisciplinary healthy living tool to help.

The researchers looked at many theories and design practices to find potential building design that supports healthy behaviour and reduces stress. From this work they devised a multidisciplinary tool to guide design decision for shared spaces. The ultimate aim was to encourage people to engage physically, socially and psychologically in different built environment settings.

Level footpaths, seating, and shade create an attractive and inclusive place to walk and sit.

The recent pandemic tells us to take another look at how we maintain (or not) healthy minds and bodies.

A wide tree-lined boulevard with seating and level footpath.

The research paper describes the methods they used for developing the tool for inclusive self-directed healthy behaviours. A matrix of theories was created from urban planning, biophilia, active living and social engagement design. A list of criteria was generated from the research to create clear definitions using a rating system.

Although the tool continues to be modified, the article describes an interesting multidisciplinary approach to design for human wellbeing. The process of discussion on design features takes thinking another step forward. The authors found that the dialogue between individuals with different experiences facilitated a blending of knowledge for a holistic, inclusive approach to design.

The title of the article is, Evaluating design features to support inclusive, self-directed, and active healthy living behaviours.

From the abstract

Active healthy living design has typically focused on urban and community environments to support physical activity. This article looks at an expanded definition of active healthy living opportunities at building level design for various groups. We engaged with a diversity of people through a form of inclusive design that encourages individuals to explore areas of shared spaces or get outside of personal environments and buildings for self-directed, restorative activity.

The objective is to promote features that support health and wellbeing. We propose a multidisciplinary tool to facilitate decisions around creating shared spaces in different settings to encourage active behaviour.

Theories and design practices were examined for potential applications to building-centred design that supports healthy behaviour, reduces environment stress. We included the Biophilic Healing Index that helps encourage healthy behaviours.

A rating scale was then associated with criteria representing evidence-based guidelines, and capable of being fitted for use as a teaching-learning and discussion aid. An overview of data from demonstration of the tool is presented, along with feedback on proposed improvements and how these might impact professional practice.

Flourish by Design: a book

Flourish by Design is a book about designing for a better tomorrow. This edited book explores the difference that design can make for people, organisations, and the planet. Some of the topics are: bio-inspired materials, more-than-human design, sustainability, and urban acupuncture.

The introductory chapter begins:

“Design impacts everyday life, shaping the way we engage with the world and those around us. This is not simply limited to the ‘us’ as human beings but also the many other species we share the planet with. Considered in this way, our—human and non-human—collective future may seem uncertain amidst the many challenges we now face.

Front cover of Flourish by Design. A bright green background with black and white lettering.

“Climate change, social inequalities, and economic and political instabilities all represent complex, often interrelated problems that require significant and urgent responses. The level of collaboration, cooperation, and coordination needed to tackle these problems is increasingly vital. Yet from the current position, we may struggle to even begin to think about how to address such matters.”

Flourish by Design is a large volume with 32 chapters covering a diversity of design ideas and issues. You can download the full book here (10MB). Editors are Nick Dunn, Leon Cruickshank, and Gemma Coupe. Thankfully, it is open access – yes, the editors are keen for change.

Prioritising inclusive design features

When money becomes a barrier to designing inclusively, it doesn’t mean you can’t do anything. From Qatar comes a paper which describes assessment criteria for prioritising inclusive design features. The research study assumed that designers were responsible for coming up with the right solutions rather than including users in the process.

The authors used a higher education context for their study. Educational environments lack adequate furniture in classes, auditoriums, libraries and eating areas.

Image of Qatar University showing the passive ventilation and cooling chimneys.

Aerial view of Qatar University showing the rows of thermal chimneys for passive ventilation and cooling.

For building upgrades, the authors concluded the need to prioritise criteria where the buildings were either partially or fully inadequate for physical access. The highest ranked criteria were, external access route, design and surface of exterior ramps and operation of entrance doors. These criteria indicate that people with limited mobility were the only consideration.

The participants in the study were access practitioners and experts within the facilities management team. It would be interesting to see if students with disability agreed with the proposed ranking of criteria. They would likely agree that getting into the building is the most important, but is that enough?

The title of the article is, Criteria and Challenges of Inclusive Design in the Built Environment. There is little new knowledge in this paper for universal design practitioners as many have moved on to embrace co-design processes. However, it is interesting to see a different perspective on the issues when funding is a barrier.

From the abstract

Ensuring an inclusive environment is the responsibility of architects, planners, engineers and facility managers. It is essential to ensure that buildings’ design and operation align with inclusive principles through regular assessments.

Many comprehensive assessment tools exist and are used in the industry. Decision-makers should be able to prioritise inclusive design criteria when issues such as funding arise.

This study aims to identify prioritized accessibility assessment criteria for people with disability in higher education facilities through the lens of experts. A targeted sampling methodology was adopted for the semi-structured interviews.

This study aimed to identify the accessibility assessment criteria in higher education facilities. The lens of experts provided justification for selecting the highest and lowest priorities.

The findings resulted in a list of highest and lowest criteria, and criteria with significant differences. Justifications for selections, and a close-up look into the influence of experts’ experience on the rankings was also part of the study.

This paper provides insight into significant inclusive design criteria for improved facility management decision-making processes and the strategy for managing the challenges of inclusive design in new and existing facilities.

Healthy and inclusive communities

The stories of lived experience provide important nuanced details that are rarely picked up in survey questionnaires or comparing one group with another. One way to capture lived experience is by using “photovoice” – a method of visually recording experiences. This method reveals detailed ways of creating healthy and inclusive communities for all.

Five Canadian researchers used the photovoice method to discover the everyday barriers and facilitators mobility device users face. Participants not only provided photographic evidence, they related what it meant for them as an outcome. Unsurprisingly, footpaths, road crossings and road maintenance and construction featured strongly in their findings.

Photos of environmental barriers provide important information for urban planners. They can see more clearly how the small details matter. This image shows an uneven footpath and no clear access to the bus stop.

A narrow footpath and a nature strip with a bus stop. The bus stop has no seat and there is no pathway or concrete apron for the bus stop. Passengers have to cross the grass to get to the bus. Healthy and inclusive communities.

Participants in the study captured physical characteristics that both helped and hindered their ability to navigate the environment. Objective assessments such as access audits, do not reveal the complex interaction of social participation and health. Lived experience and the everyday stories, on the other hand, provide this valuable information.

This image shows a woman with a walking aid and a man with a baby stroller need to pass on a narrow path encroached by gravel and mulch.

Image by John Evernden

A woman with a wheelie walker and a man with a baby stroller meet from opposite directions on the footpath. In order to pass, one of them will have to walk and wheel on the gravel which is encroaching on the footpath.

Key points and themes

Five key themes emerged from the study.

En Route: the usability and safety of the physical path to reach a destination, road crossings and traffic signals. Included in this theme are footpath width, maintenance and surface materials.

Thresholds: Accessibility issues in the transition spaces from outdoors to indoors at a destination. Difficulty getting into shops and other public places limited access to goods and services.

Temporal Rhythms: Fluctuations of accessibility with circadian and seasonal variations as well as urban practices. Differences between day and night where it is easy during the day but not at night. Temporary closures to footpaths due to maintenance meant going back home or trying to find another route.

The Paradox of Accessibility: Fluctuation of accessibility due to inappropriate usage or of conflicting user needs. Participants also found examples of poor attempts at accessibility such as a ramp leading to sand or gravel, or a ramp with a steep grade. The conflict of cyclists using the wider footpaths was also an issue.

Making Change Happen: Actions and solutions to improve the accessibility. Participants were not passive in accepting the status quo. They showed pictures where they had successfully lobbied for changes to a business or a community building. Participants also showed the converse – places where their lobbying had not yet brought about change.

Installing kerb ramps, footpaths and pedestrian crossings are essential physical improvements. However, changing social and urban practices have a role to play as well. The participation of people using mobility devices needs to go beyond tokenism. That means involving users in decision making process – a universal design concept.

The title of the article is, Creating inclusive and healthy communities for all: A photovoice approach with adults with mobility limitations.

From the abstract

This study used photovoice to document the lived experience of 30 people with mobility limitations to see how their interactions with the urban environment affected their mobility, participation and health.

Five themes emerged: 1) En Route, 2) Thresholds, 3) Seasonal variations, 4) The Paradox of Accessibility, and 5) Making Change Happen.

Accessibility exists along a continuum, which acknowledges people with mobility limitations to cope with environmental barriers and maintain their health. This requires an understanding of accessibility that integrates physical, psychological and social dimensions.

Nature-inclusive design approaches

A research paper from The Netherlands poses the need for participatory and nature-inclusive design approaches. A nature-centered perspective prioritises non-human species at the forefront of the design process.

“As we strive for an inclusive and sustainable society, it is crucial to develop and implement new behaviors and design methods that enable individuals to effectively coexist with nature.”

A white swan is floating on sun kissed water. Appreciating nature.

The title of the paper is Preliminary study of participatory and nature-inclusive design approaches.


This paper aims to develop a working strategy for a larger research project to help urban designers shift their human-centred design practices to a more nature-inclusive approach. The interest in developing innovative design perspectives that incorporate nature stems from the need to address the challenges of biodiversity loss by adopting a perspective that prioritises non-human species and their needs.

The methodology used presents an analysis of participatory and nature-inclusive design approaches and examines how they have been conceptualised and operationalised. A final discussion reflects on the importance of advancing the development of a nature-inclusive design discipline that focuses on the needs of non-human species and transferring participatory design concepts tailored to humans, such as agency, to non-human communities.

Nature-inclusive design has the potential to encourage people to reconnect with nature and value non-human species as much as humans. Non-human actors need to be recognised as part of the community and given a chance to coexist in an urban context.

Social Value Toolkit for architecture

Design impacts both social and economic value to a community, but how do you measure and track it? The RIBA Social Value Toolkit has the answer. The Toolkit makes it easy to evaluate and demonstrate the impact of design on people and communities. A research project by the University of Reading provided the evidence for the Toolkit.

“If we cannot define what we mean by value, we cannot be sure to produce it, nor to share it fairly, nor to sustain economic growth.” (Mazzucato, 2018)

“Social value is created when buildings, places, and infrastructure support environmental, economic and social wellbeing to improve people’s quality of life.” (UK Green Building Council)

Front cover of the Social Value Toolkit. Deep blue with light blue text.

The underpinning concepts for the Toolkit are based in the wellbeing literature. Social value of architecture is in fostering positive emotions, connecting people, and in supporting participation. The Toolkit has two parts. A library of post occupancy evaluation questions, and a monetisation tool that links to other post occupancy evaluation processes.

Eilish Barry says that if we don’t define and measure the social impact of design, it will be pushed further down the priority list as costs rise. Generating social value is useful for potential future residents as well as designers and developers. Barry poses five recommendations for industry in her Fifth Estate article:

  • Knowledege sharing is vital
  • We need a common language
  • Social value should be part of the design process
  • Methodologies need to be flexible
  • Opportunity for collaboration (Eilish Barry pictured)
Eilish Barry is smiling at the camera. She has dark brown hair and is wearing a black top.

The Social Value Toolkit

The library of questions means you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They cover positive emotions, connecting, freedom and flexibility, and participation. Each of these has a monetary value attached.

The dimensions of social value in the built environment context.

A diagram showing the dimensions of social value in the context of the built environment. Jobs, wellbeing, designing with community, learning, using local materials.

The approach to monetising social outcomes is based on Social Return on Investment. There are several different ways to measure this.

  1. Value for money: Willingness to pay extra for something you value.
  2. Time is money: The value of savingtime.
  3. Subjective Wellbeing valuation: Putting a value on wellbeing – most appropriate to understanding the impact of design on end users.

The Toolkit references the Social Value Bank, an open access source that contains a series of values based on subjective wellbeing valuation.

The Toolkit is briefly explained on the Royal Institute of British Architects website where you can download the 2MB document. Or you can access the document here.

Architecture & Design online magazine also featured this topic with more from Eilish Barry.

Footpaths are key for children

Built environment designs and research studies rarely consider children. At best, research singles out children for attention as needing special arrangements. The same happens for older people. However both generations often want or need the same things. Indeed, footpaths are key for children, older people and everyone else.

A research paper by Lisa Stafford focuses on children with disability – a group rarely considered in environmental planning and policy. That’s despite the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities including children.

It’s important to study everyday practice, actions, meanings and understandings children have about places and spaces.

A child wearing a pink jacket sits on a stone wall. A pair of crutches are propped up next to her. They have red and blue handles. Footpaths are key for children.

“Taken for granted” mundane activities of an individual’s life reveal how people use and act in everyday places. Conversely, it also shows how those places shape the lives of individuals – especially in what they cannot do. Stafford’s qualitative study reveals the everyday lives of children with disability and what they can and cannot do outside the home.

From the findings

Children with disability lacked freedom to move and engage in everyday activities. For example, driveways and disconnected footpaths meant this was as far as they could go. Cars going too fast meant that riding a bike did not feel safe. “I’d like to go over the road to say hi without having to worry about people speeding”, said one participant.

Stafford’s paper reports verbatim conversations with children which makes for interesting reading. Children had their movements constrained, not by disability, but by the design of the environment.

What a street looks like, the function it serves and the activities it permits are based on socio-cultural norms. Streets are full of assumptions about the people who use them.

Shows the street of a new housing development with driveways for cars but no footpath for people

Although footpaths are key for all pedestrians they are not consistently provided in local streets. Walkability continues to be measured by the road rather than the footpath.

The title of the article is, Bounded at the driveway’s edge: body-space tensions encountered by children with mobility impairments in moving about the neighbourhood street. The first part is very academic, but the second part reveals interesting ideas.

From the abstract

The neighbourhood is influential in encouraging children’s independent mobility and activity participation. However, its influence on the everyday experiences of children with disabilities is not well understood. This article is about the accounts of ten nine-12 year olds from south-east Queensland, Australia, who have diverse mobility impairments. The study reveals that mobility is a conditional act.

Conditionality is understood by the way social and spatial factors intersect to influence one’s mobility about the street – or in this case coerced immobility. The mismatch between children movement and the neighbourhood environment is revealed. It is intensified by the absent footpath, with repercussions for their activity participation.

The findings suggest the importance of understanding diverse body-space practices in mobility studies and the need to contest ableism in street design to create inclusive walkable neighbourhoods for all.

Design justice in engineering courses

Typical engineering courses have plenty of design content but they lack concepts of design justice. Engineers have done much to improve lives for the better. However, there are instances where the opposite occurs and unintentional harms are caused. Time to introduce the concepts of design justice into engineering courses, according to a recent paper.

Using a design justice lens, the inequities in the built environment come to light. Design justice seeks to address the ways in which design decisions perpetuate systemic injustices.

A six lane highway through an urban area.

The paper describes how undergraduate students were tasked to assess an established neighbourhood where major highway now divides what was a thriving neighbourhood. Students were asked to review the case using principles of design justice.

Principles of design justice

The 10 principles of design justice are compared to the Engineering Code of Ethics. This is important because engineering ethics are about engineer practice, not who they design for. For example, avoiding conflicts of interest is not the same as being collaborative and a facilitator of design. The list of principles focus on the users of the design and introduces elements of co-design. These principles shift the focus from their skills as engineers to their skills of listening to and understanding users.

Self reflection on the learning

The author tracks the methods used and then uses direct quotes from students to highlight the learning. Here are two examples:

“The real lesson of the exercise though is just how big of an impact design can have on people and how long that the impact can be felt even generations later.”

“I have been aware that design can cause unintended harm but have never had a list of principles to reference when creating a design. I can now use this list to create just designs in my life.”

A group of men in hard hats, and with tools in their hands, stand near a bulldozer in an urban road. A run down apartment block is in the background.

The principles of design justice are a good framework for engineers and others involved in design. The engineering profession is seeking ways to improve diversity and inclusion within their ranks. Now it is time to ensure diversity and inclusion is part of their everyday activity.

The title of the paper is, Incorporating Design Justice Activities in Engineering Courses, and good for all built environment educators.

Teaching engineers empathy

Universal design and empathetic design for engineers discusses similar issues. Here is an excerpt from the abstract.

This article explores the relevance of universal design and empathic design in education. Universal design focuses on creating accessible and usable products, environments, and systems for individuals with diverse abilities.

Empathy involves understanding and sharing the feelings of others, encompassing cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empathy. Teaching empathy to engineers is emphasized as a crucial aspect. By developing empathic skills, engineers gain a deeper understanding of user needs and perspectives, leading to more inclusive and user-centered design solutions.

Effective communication techniques such as asking open-ended questions, active listening, observation, and perspective-taking are explored. The article also explores methods for measuring empathy, thus enabling engineers to assess the effectiveness of their empathic design approaches. The challenges facing students, teachers, and university authorities in implementing such courses are also bulleted.

Thinking universal design first

Creating inclusive, universally designed places and spaces includes many professions, but it is often the architects who take the design lead. However, architects around the world understand universal design in different ways. For some it means complying with minimal disability access legislation at the end of the project. But for the enlightened, it means thinking universal design first – from the outset. For many it is somewhere in between.

Two academics, an architect and a social scientist, applied a set of universal design criteria to various projects to find good examples. They present their findings in a paper along with their selection criteria and examples.

Four case studies are central to this research on the application of universal design principles. The Dialogue Centre in Warsaw, the Alexandrina Library in Alexandria, the Issam Fares Institute in Beirut, and the Winter Visual Arts Center, Philadelphia. Image: Dialogue Centre Przelomy by KWK Promes. Photo by Juliusz Sokołowski.

An open town square with grey paving. The photo was taken after rain and there is one lone person on the square which is the roof of the building.

The paper begins with an introduction and a literature review. The method of the study includes their parameters of analysis and selection criteria. Diagrams and photographs add to the explanations and provide a deep view of each of the projects. A table presents a comparison of the four projects on 6 criteria: community involvement, access and equitable use, transgenerational, legibility, flexibility and equity of gender and age.

What they found

Overall, the Dialogue Centre had more universal design ideas, whereas the other three focused on people with mobility impairments. The Issam Fares Institute‘s main function is to research solutions for all ages and genders. However, this was not architecturally evident. The architects involved the students at the Winter Visual Arts Center in the design, but flexibility for access is low. The Alexandrina Library is the oldest building in the case studies, completed in 2001. The building has separate access for people with mobility impairments, but the library content is good for all ages and has sections for people who are blind.

The researchers conclude that universal design is a solid starting point for design, and their assessment criteria are a good basis for creating inclusive and equitable use of major public buildings.

The title of the article is, Improving assessment criteria of universal design: Towards an equitable approach.

Image of Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt. Photo: Gerald Zugmann

External view showing the solid granite curved shape set against the city landscape.

From the abstract

Architecture is for everyone. It needs to give a chance to everyone to feel included in facilities and public spaces. When architects design built environments following disability regulations they tend to think of it as a burden. But what’s needed is an innovative architectural approach. A universal space is a place where all people can fit and feel equal and satisfied regardless of individual characteristics or social grouping.

Taking a universal design approach is either used wrongly or divided into accessible or/and inclusive architecture. This research investigates the significance of universal design to create spaces and environments that everyone can use.

This research uses a scientific methodology by first reading the literature on universal design and its application in the design of spaces. This is followed by examining and comparing four chosen case studies, which are from Poland, Egypt, USA and Lebanon. The findings support the authors’ argument that universal design is a solid starting point for appropriate design solutions. A series of recommendations are made about the effective use of this architectural approach.

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