Evaluating universal design in built environments

What’s the best way to evaluate the application of universal design principles in a project? Is it a checklist? A professional opinion? Or something else? And what kind of evaluation are we talking about? Surely evaluation is about the usability of the building from a user perspective. A group of researchers decided to find out how stakeholders were evaluating universal design in their projects.

Evaluating universal design requires knowledge in many areas … Should not be done by a single person (e.g., architect), but by a board of people knowledgeable in the building environment, universal design, and of course representative users with varied ranges of disabilities.

Architect plans with a rule and other drawing instruments.

The Australian researchers undertook an extensive study involving 157 participants. More than half reported experience of disability, either themselves or a family member. Academics and access consultants represented the largest number of participants. When asked who is involved in universal design evaluation, the most common response was access consultants (45%). Disability advocates represented almost thirty percent (29.8%).

The research paper explains the processes used and the data gathered. Participants used specific tools or methods with checklists being a favourite, followed by access audits. This is where the understanding of universal design comes into question. However, some respondents were incorporating user feedback from the design conception stage.

Overall, almost all participants rated evaluation of universal design as being important. When asked who should do the evaluation, building users, building construction stakeholders and multiple stakeholders were identified. There was a trend towards access consultants being the people to do the evaluation.


The researchers claim that evaluation of universal design is being called for and carried out in practice. The results appear to divide into two camps. Those who think of universal design as a standard, and those who understand universal design as an iterative process.

However, evaluation from the perspective of meeting standards (did it comply?), or meeting the project scope (deliverables) does not tell you if the design is usable. The researchers conclude the paper with this sentence:

“[We need to] … better understand how people with disability can effectively participate in design processes, and what factors serve as barriers and facilitators to participation.”

Not sure that more research on how stakeholders evaluate universal design is the issue. Understanding the difference between access standards and universal design is still the key point.

The title of the paper is, Evaluating universal design of built environments: an empirical study of stakeholder practice and perceptions. The researchers are based at Deakin University.

From the abstract

Universal design aims to reduce environmental barriers and enhance usability of buildings for all people, particularly those with disabilities.

This study aimed to gather information on current practice and what stakeholders perceive as important to universal design evaluation. A mixed methods approach was employed, and data were collected via online survey (n = 157) and semi-structured interviews (n = 37).

Participants included industry professionals, policy makers, government officials, academics, and people with disabilities. Just over one-third of participants stated that they had experience of evaluating universal design in public built environments.

Checklists were most commonly used, yet participants expressed concern with their suitability for this purpose. Almost all participants perceived evaluation of universal design as important, citing its value to advocacy, professional development and strengthening the evidence base of universal design.

Findings from this study highlight a tension between a checklist approach, and a multidisciplinary method that encompasses the complexity of universal design application.

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