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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