Putting a value on universal design

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

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

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

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

The 18 Measures

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

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

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