Adopting universal design: the view of architects

A floor plan drawing with a black penWe rely on designers to make the things we use, and to make them easy and convenient to use. But are users the main consideration or is it a case of impressing fellow designers? Design competitions rarely mention useability, if at all. When it comes to architects, adopting universal design seems to be a big problem according to recent research.

The research paper from Europe takes the case of Flanders to examine the barriers and drivers in architectural practice. While legislation and regulations aim to push for more inclusive designs, reluctance is still apparent. Data were collected from Flemish architects using a survey and seminars. Sceptical attitudes was a common barrier with both architects and their clients. One of the conclusions is that access regulations create tunnel vision regarding UD. Participant responses were generally dominated by the language of accessibility and not inclusion.

This research project has produced a lot of useful content in terms of real and perceived barriers to implementing UD. The title of the paper is, Barriers To And Drivers Of Adopting UD In Current Architectural Practice: The Case Of Flanders.  It is published in the Journal or Architectural and Planning Research

Purpose of the study:

“The current study, which investigated architects’ perceptions of UD barriers and drivers in current architectural practice in Flanders, Belgium, aims to add to the existing body of knowledge of the three main categories of UD barriers and drivers in two distinct ways. First, in contrast to previous research, this study specifically focuses on factors that affect the decision to implement UD at the beginning of the design process. The main reason for this focus is that the initial motivation or commitment to adopt UD as a design strategy at the very start of the process appears to be important in order to accomplish the goal of inclusion (Bringolf, 2011; Ringaert, 2001).”

 

Universal Design and the Circular Economy

A yellow skip bin is overflowing with rubbish.Concerns for climate change and waste production are driving the concept of a “circular economy“. This requires designers to think and create in different ways. But will these new ways also be inclusive, accessible and universally designed? Chances are the answer is “yes”. That’s because a circular economy requires designers to engage with stakeholders in the design process.

Including universal design frameworks in the concept of a circular economy is one way to draw together the many disciplines. A circular economy shares at least one thing in common with universal design – the need to consult with stakeholders. This is one aspect discussed in an article from Sweden that discusses the issues in terms of challenges and practical implications.

The concept of a circular economy is new and mostly discussed in theoretical terms. So it is good to see the concept of universal design being brought into the conversation before implementation strategies are formed. The title of the open access article is, How circular is current design practice? Investigating perspectives across industrial design and architecture in the transition towards a circular economy.

Abstract  

The transition to a circular economy (CE) produces a range of new challenges for designers and requires specific knowledge, strategies, and methods. To date, most studies regarding design for a CE have been theoretical and conceptual, hence, limited research has been conducted on the practical implications of designing for a CE. Therefore, the aim of this study is to provide a better understanding of how design practitioners interpret and implement the CE concept in practice. To capture the complexity of real-world cases, semi-structured interviews were carried out with design practitioners (N = 12) within the disciplines of architecture and industrial design who have actively worked with circularity in a design agency setting. The results show that the practitioners have diverse perspectives on designing for a CE, relating to (1) the circular design process, (2) the effects of the CE on design agencies, (3) the changing role of the designer, and (4) the external factors affecting circular design in practice. Some differences were identified between the architects and industrial designers, with the industrial designers more strongly focused on circular business models and the architects on the reuse of materials on a building level. In addition, circular strategies and associated (similar) terminologies were understood and applied in fundamentally different ways. As the CE blurs boundaries of scale and disciplines, there is a need for universal design frameworks and language. The CE concept is expanding the scope of the design process and driving the integration of new knowledge fields and skills in the design process. The successful implementation of the CE in practice is based on extensive collaboration with stakeholders and experts throughout all stages of the design process. Design agencies have addressed the CE by establishing dedicated CE research and design teams, facilitating knowledge exchange, developing their own circular strategies and methods, and striving for long-term client relationships that foster the engagement of designers with the lifecycles of designed artefacts rather than perceiving design projects as temporary endeavors. Ultimately, a holistic and integral approach towards design in a CE is needed to ensure that the underlying CE goals of contributing to sustainable development and establishing a systemic shift are ongoingly considered.

The Conversation has an article explaining the circular economy.

School and apartment block merge

Aerial view of the proposed development showing the apartment towers and the school precinct at ground level.
Image by Jack Hobhouse/courtesy HawkinsBrown

Most schools have a lot of open space which is generally reserved for students. But these spaces are left empty a lot of the time. By merging a school with an apartment block, some spaces can be shared. This is part of the motivation behind an experimental building in Hackney, London. This is an example of reducing the segregation of generations and being more inclusive. It takes mixed use to another level. 

The 89 apartments are in two tower blocks while the school juts out from the base. There is a clear delineation between the two but the design shows they are meant to be together. For example, the school’s basketball court and the apartment block’s common room are shared spaces.

The architect said, “The interconnected apartments and school suggest that adults and children don’t have to be treated like different species in a zoo. By bringing them together, this space shows that school kids and apartment dwellers can peacefully coexist.” I call that another version of inclusive design.

The title of the article is, In London, an experimental building houses two very different types of tenants. It’s from the FastCompany website.

 

Architecture and Health

Picture of Cabot Square, Canary Wharf, London showing an open paved space with attractive buildings on all sidesIt would seem that green spaces are only part of the story when it comes to urban design and health. Beautiful buildings also rate highly according to a study in the UK. However, beautiful landscapes need to be enjoyed by the whole population and unfortunately, we still have architects thinking of children, disability inclusion, and ageing as a ‘tacked on’ afterthought or special add-on feature. Obvious ramps and rails not only detract from the building itself, they detract from the overall enjoyment by people whose needs are excluded at the design concept stage. 

The Sourceable article by Steve Hansen explains how beautiful architecture positively affects health. Based on research findings, green space did not always gain top spot with residents in urban areas. Being green does not necessarily make it “scenic”. The research involved participants viewing photographs of open space and buildings and rating them as scenic or un-scenic. The conclusion is that “scenic-ness” is more important to health than just being green.

Is inclusive design achievable?

architecture blueprint with rule and pencilDo architects have the skills and attitude we need to create truly inclusive environments? Is it even possible to design architecture for everyone? These two questions were put to Jane Duncan, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. She says architects are in pole position, but we are still polarising people into people with disability and people without disability. It is time we realised that “we just need to design for people.”

The article in Smart Cities Library is short but to the point. As a person who is just five feet one inch, Jane Duncan finds many things physically out of her reach. So she is in a good position to call for architects to design for diversity. “Removing barriers that create undue effort and separation enables everyone to participate equally, confidently, and independently in everyday activities”.

The website has other good items. 

DeafSpace: Architectural design for people who are deaf

Two men are walking on a path between two buildings.Who would think that deafness and ramps are connected? For people who sign, it’s easier and more fluent if there are no steps in the way. They don’t have to watch where their feet are going either. This is one of the things that underpins the notion of DeafSpace.

People who are deaf inhabit space in different ways to others. DeafSpace is about aligning their way of being to environments. But designs that suit are not a problem for others. Indeed, wider walkways and no steps are great for everyone.

This four minute video below shows it’s not difficult to achieve. Once things are pointed out, it becomes obvious. The video has basic design features both inside and outside buildings that include people who sign to communicate. The features shown are universal because they are good for everyone. 

Blindness no barrier to designing

Chris Downey sits a a desk with a woman and there are tactile architectural plans on the desk in front of them.Can you keep practising as an architect after you go blind? The answer is Yes. This is Chris Downey’s experience. With a few work-arounds and new tools he says he is better at his job now. He found a way of getting tactile versions of drawings and developed his own tools for making drawings. He has been a campaigner for a universal design approach to the built environment ever since. CBS News has a story about him talking about his approach to work and life, including playing baseball with his son. Downey covers a lot of issues with grace and humour. His TED talk is very popular and there is a transcript of the talk. Being blind doesn’t mean giving up on life. For Downey it was discovering new adventures.

 

The feel factor: techno architecture

A fish-eye view of an outdoor night scene.There’s nothing like the real thing, but the next best thing is virtual reality. A paper from Europe explores Immersive Virtual Reality as a means of informing architects and designers about designing inclusively. The technology helps with seeing how people navigate a space and interact with the design elements. However, this does not replace the live user feedback that goes beyond technically navigable space. Nevertheless, techno architecture is a good start.

The title of the paper is, Immersive Virtual Reality for Assisting in Inclusive Architectural Design.  You will need institutional access for a free read with SpringerLink. Or you can go to ResearchGate for a PDF of the article.

Abstract:  Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR) technology is capable of simulating highly realistic environments and affecting behavioral realism via the creation of the feeling of immersion in a virtual world. Because of that IVR has got a great potential as a tool for evaluation of architectural designs. IVR allows to navigate in the designed space and interact with its elements as if they were real. In this paper, we demonstrate that IVR can assist during the Inclusive Design process and improve the architects’ understanding of the needs of different users, especially those that are older or disabled. Inclusive design promotes products and environments that are inclusive for all people. Architects require in-depth insight into how particular groups of people experience the designed environment and how they interact with it. IVR can help with that.  

Designing for autism

Floor Plan, Blueprint, House, HomeWell designed buildings support people with physical impairment, but what about people with other sensory issues or cognitive impairment? Shelly Dival argues that we can do more in the built environment to support people on the autism spectrum in educational, work, and home environments.

As a Churchill Fellow, Shelly travelled around the globe in 2018 to gather international knowledge and raise awareness in Australia of how people with autism can benefit from more positive interactions with the built environment. Her report outlines building features requiring further research, including design theories, methods and outcomes. Her findings are also featured in an architecture magazine.

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 forthcoming Guidelines on cognitive accessibility, based on the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework.  

Cinema, Users, and Public Space

Front cover of the publication showing a long gradual flight of steps in a street with a travellator running beside itThree papers from the latest issue of International Journal of Architecture and Planning address universal design. Once you scroll through the usual context-setting paragraphs on the principles of UD, the research itself has something to offer.

Disability and Otherization: Readings on Cinema in The Light of UD Principles. The study is about 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 UD 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 UD. 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.