Luminance Contrast: 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.

So why do we need such contrast? Not everyone has perfect vision, colour discrimination, or visual perception. 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.  

You can also read Measuring up for luminance contrast for more information on the topic.

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).”

 

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.

 

Access doesn’t guarantee social participation

Library building with wide level paved pathway to the entrance. Picture taken in Berrigan NSW.It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it. So, it’s all very well being able to physically access the built environment, but access doesn’t guarantee social participation. Just considering how the shapes, sizes and ages of different bodies physically interact with the built environment is not enough. If universal design is about increasing access as well as physical and mental wellbeing then there is more work to do. This is the summation of a recent literature review that found social participation aspects of universal design is under researched. 

Similarly to other research on inclusive practice, the need to include non-professionals and users of the built environment is key to creating an accessible and inclusive built environment. The final sentence in the literature review sums up a good call to action. Universal design straddles multiple boundaries. So the amount of collective universal design knowledge should be available and accessible to everyone. Indeed, that is just what CUDA is trying to achieve along with many practitioners

The literature review’s key question was “How is social participation represented in recent discourse around universal design in the built environment”. Studies from around the world were examined from 52 databases. The article includes the methodology and results. 

It is easier to measure whether a person can use a building (accessibility) than it is to measure what they are using it for (participation). The Australian Standards cover accessibility and this is why the story often ends here. 

The title of the article is, An integrated literature review of the current discourse around universal design in the built environment – is occupation the missing link?  The term “occupation” is from the occupational therapy field and means “doing things”. You will need institutional access for a free read. However, you can ask the lead author, Danielle Hitch at Deakin University, for a copy. Or Valerie Watchorn via ResearchGate.  

Abstract

Purpose: To synthesise current literature regarding applications of universal design (UD) to built environments that promote social participation, identify areas of agreement and areas requiring further attention and development. Occupations refer to personally meaningful activities, which people need, want or must do as part of their daily life.

Materials and methods: Recently published literature (January 2011–December 2017) relevant to UD and built environments, and pertaining to any discipline or professional area, were identified via a systematic search of databases in the EbscoHOST platform. The person–environment–occupation (PEO) model was chosen as a theoretical framework for the review, which included a sample of 33 peer reviewed journal articles.

Results: The current discourse is driven more by description, discussion, and commentary than empirical approaches; although, a combination of quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods approaches was employed. Much of the current discourse on UD and the built environment focuses on the person and the environment, with the occupations carried out in built environments and the interaction between these domains not referred to in much detail.

Conclusions: Including occupations, social participation, multi- and trans-disciplinary collaboration, and multicultural perspectives in the ongoing discourse around UD would enable the concept to reach its full potential as a medium for social justice.

Implications for Rehabilitation: The universal design (UD) process must account for the occupations that people perform in the built environment. Multi-disciplinary research and development, using multiple methods, is the most appropriate approach to investigate the application of UD to the built environment. Key areas of contention within the current discourse include meaningful inclusion of non-professional stakeholders, tensions between embracing and eliminating diversity and how professional education should be delivered.

Whole Building Design Guide

wheel diagram showing all the elements of building design.Joining the dots between all aspects of the built environment is not easy task. So the Whole Building Design Guide is a welcome resource. It is a collaboration among stakeholders and government agencies in the US. It could be titled, Building Design as a Whole. 

This web-based resource has everything you need to know. The section on design considerations has subsections that include accessibility, aesthetics, historic preservation, and sustainability. The Accessibility tab reveals more sections including Beyond Accessibility to Universal Design. This section has a useful explanation for building on the seven principles of universal design with the eight goals of universal design.

There are also sections on continuing education, case studies, and project management. This is one of the most comprehensive resources around for anyone involved in the built environment. The resource has content specific to the US in terms of codes and regulations, but the concepts apply elsewhere. The good thing is the resource appears to be updated. I first posted on this guide in 2017. I can see there is new content. 

 

Urban public space and active ageing

An older man and woman are walking away from the camera down a street. They are wearing backpacks and holding hands.China, Singapore and Japan have a policy framework that supports older people to remain within the community. Many Western countries have favoured the age-segregated community model. Regardless, both need to take a holistic view of the lives of older people to maintain quality of life. The design of urban public space is key to this approach. 

Social participation is part of staying healthy and active in older age. A study using an active ageing framework draws together physical, social and mental health into a strategy for urban design. The author argues that adding accessible, barrier-free to existing spaces is insufficient to encourage participation. Creating age-friendly spaces that are not joined up also needs to be addressed. Ageing is much more than providing health care or islands of specialised design for older people. The answer is public space that has mixed functions and integrates all generations. That is, universal design.

One of the strategies is taken from an example in Japan where a day care centre is adjacent a kindergarten. The space between is designed to encourage interaction. While this is not a new idea, it is yet to be realised more widely in new developments and urban renewal projects.

The world’s population is getting older. More people are living 30 or more years in older age, and many are maintaining health for longer. Urban design has a role to play in supporting our longevity in all aspects of health and wellbeing. It is also about dignity and independence.

The title of the paper is, The Research on the Optimum Design Strategies of the Public Space Against the Background of Active Aging

Editor’s note on terminology: “Older people” is the preferred terminology in Western cultures, not “the elderly” as if they are an homogeneous group. 

ABSTRACT:  The urban public space is an important part of the daily living space of the elderly. The paper explores the practical significance of the urban public space in meeting the psychological needs of the elderly and their will to participate in the society. The urban elderly space based on the concept of active aging, is conducive to the spiritual consolation and satisfaction of the elderly in the space with multigenerational integration, multi-functional combination and guidance and helps guide the elderly to realize their self-worth through learning and creating and participating in the society more comprehensively. Based on the theory of active aging, the paper analyzes the differences of the functions of the urban public space for the elderly in China and in view of the limitations of the design of urban public space for the elderly in China. With typical cases in China and abroad, it proposes the ideas and directions of optimum designs of urban public space for the elderly and summarizes the design strategies of the active responses to aging of the urban public space for the elderly.

Minimum building standards and myths

A flight of steps with handrails and an adjoining ramp lead to a public building. Minimum access standards for the built environment do not guarantee accessibility. Unfortunately, we still have designers who aren’t interested in best practice, just ticking the compliance box. It also means that access is a last thought and remedies, such as ramps, are tacked onto the “grand design”. But universal design should be the grand design if we want equitable and dignified use by all. 

The Access to Premises Standard of 2011 has improved accessibility to new buildings, but it is not the total answer. They only go part way in creating inclusive environments. An article in Sourceable addresses some of the issues and the myths that remain within the property industry. The myths are explained in detail in the article and are listed below:

      1. Access is the same as universal design.
      2. Universal design in more expensive than access.
      3. The Australian Standard for Access considers all people with disability.
      4. The dimensions in the Australian Standard provide independent access for everyone.
      5. Minimum compliance guarantees all people with disability cannot use everything in a building.
      6. Access consultants know everything about access, disability and universal design.

The article is by Joe Manton who concludes, “If we allow ourselves to be constrained by the minimum we will never aspire to the maximum. The legacy will be mediocrity.”  The title of the article is Minimum Compliance Means Missed Opportunities and Mediocrity

 

People, Pandemics and Premises

A group of people, some wearing face masks, are crossing the road. They are walking a safe distance apart.Is the built environment designed for social distancing in a pandemic? The quick retrofitting in buildings and outdoor spaces, indicates pandemics were not envisaged in designs. But the pandemic has revealed many problems experienced by people before it struck. Being stuck at home for a long time is one of them. Not being able to access cafes is another. People with mobility restrictions in particular are saying, “welcome to my world”. 

Being isolated at home because you can’t physically get out is not new to everyone. An article in Sourceable, People, Pandemics and Premises, discusses some of the issues the pandemic has highlighted. Here are some points to consider:

    • Plastic screens at customer service counters make it difficult for people with hearing loss.
    • Face masks make lip-reading impossible and muffles speech.
    • Lack of door automation means touching door handles.
    • Narrow footpaths and internal corridors make social distancing impossible.
    • The height of take-away counters in cafes make ordering difficult from a seated position and difficult to hear each other.
    • Self-serve counters and check-outs are preferred now, but the space is too small to include mobility devices.

The design of housing also gets a mention and the recent “bean counter” approach to universal design in housing doesn’t take account of the pandemic. And this will not be the one and only time we have a pandemic. Our homes are now school rooms, workplaces and refuges. Apart from general accessibility for everyone, the pandemic requires us to re-think the 1950s “ideal” home design. It’s time for some real universal design thinking. 

The Sourceable article is an interesting take on the pandemic by Joe Manton. 

 

Beyond compliance with UD

Front cover of the guide.Standards for the built environment tell you how to comply with minimum requirements. But compliance does not equal usability or convenience for everyone. A guide book from Ireland on the built environment draws together Irish standards with a practical universal design approach. Many of the standards mirror those in Australia so most of the information is compatible. Parking, siting, pedestrian movement, steps, ramps, lifts, seating and bollards are all covered. 

Building for Everyone, External environment and approach covers each of the features in detail. While the style of tactile indicators varies from the Australian design, the advice on placement is still useful. There is a reference list of related documents including Australian Standards. The guide is undated, but probably published circa 2010. This means some of the technology, such as parking ticket machines is a little outdated.

There is also a section at the end on human abilities and design. It covers walking, balance, handling, strength and endurance, lifting, reaching, speech, hearing, sight, touch and more.

Published by the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design in Ireland it is very detailed. Checklists help guide the reader through the material. This booklet links with others in the series, particularly the one on entrances and circulation spaces. The good aspect of these guides is the perspective of a universal design approach rather than proposing prescriptive design parameters.

The science of universal design

An aerial view of Grand Harbour Malta showing the many bays and dense population.Can universal design be regarded as a science? As more guidelines are produced with technical specifications, there’s a danger that the spirit of the concept is getting lost. When we drill down to the skills required to design inclusively we find it goes beyond well-meaning guidelines. This is what makes designing universally a science. 

Reporting on case study of a design proposal for a floating sea terminal in the Grand Harbour in Malta, Lino Bianco explains why. The case study also includes a heritage centre, a maintenance workshop and offices. The article details technical aspects supported by drawings and design considerations.

Bianco begins with the background to universal design and how it relates to EU and the Maltese context.  As a member state of the EU, Malta is obliged to follow the legal requirements for accessibility and inclusion. 

Bianco argues that the universal design philosophy has evolved into the systematic development of design guidelines. Consequently, the guidelines have become mandatory for built infrastructure projects. This has lead to a compliance approach which is contrary to the original aims of universal design. This is why the holistic application of universal design principles is a science not a format.

His concluding comments propose that universal design should be descriptive and not prescriptive. “Adopting a performance-based approach is what UD as an applied science involves. It leads to designs with inclusive environs beyond the prescriptive requirement at law”.

The title of the article isUniversal Design: From design philosophy to applied science. 

Abstract: Universal Design (UD) philosophy is inspired by the social responsibility that no discrimination is present in the use of the built environment. During recent decades UD philosophy led to a systematic development of design guidelines for architectural and urban projects aimed at rendering the built environment accessible to all. In Malta, such guidelines are endorsed by central and local government entities and non­governmental organizations and they are covered by legislation which i s actively enforced. Moreover, the law stipulates that the planning regulator makes it mandatory that a given development permission complies with these guidelines. This ensures that no barriers can hinder the usage of a given development. The objective of this paper is to demonstrate that UD is not only a legal requisite emerging from a socially sensitive design philosophy and grounded in official design standards that ensure legal compliance, but an applied science aimed at ensuring mobility for all. Using a case study from this European Union Member State, this paper argues that setting the focus on technical specifications relating to access for all falls short of addressing the inherent interdependencies; consequently, it does not tackle UD issues. UD goes beyond the prescriptive requirement established by law and underpins a performance-based design, thereby intrinsically enhancing the quality of any given element, whether a space or a product. UD is an applied scientific discipline; it is a multifaceted, interdisciplinary branch of learning. It involves the application of current formal scientific knowledge to pragmatic scenarios in order to attain contextual specific solutions. UD is not just an applied design philosophy; it is an applied science integrating anthropometrics, medicine and design; it is universal design science.

Bianco, L. (2020). Universal design: from design philosophy to applied science. Journal of Accessibility and Design for All, 10 (1), 70-97