Universal Design in Architectural Education

Two student models of a housing development incorporating universal design.
Two examples of student designs

Ageing is a fact of life. It’s something we know happens but don’t want to think about. But policy-makers and designers need to think about it as many of us live longer. Yes, it is a good thing, but also a challenge. Two things need to change – designer attitudes and skills, and building codes. So what are architects doing about it? We need universal design in architectural education if we are to leave behind the age-unfriendly designs of last century.

A paper from Ireland discusses many of the housing issues faced across the world. That is, homelessness, affordability, social housing, and ageing safely at home. The crisis in homelessness led to more funding for local authorities to tackle the issues. Hence, an opportunity to try something different. 

The Cork Centre for Architectural Education (CCAE) embarked on a “Live Project” for architecture students. This type of learning allows creativity to meet the real world. It also encourages students to take a moral and social approach to design. 

The authors discuss the real life project which was to design a housing development for older adults. It covers the site and the teaching methods related to universal design. Working with the local authority gave students awareness of different housing provisions. It also changed their perceptions of families similar to their own experience. 

One of the outcomes was that students found it harder to combine both the effective overall site strategy with an equally well-considered scheme for the interior of the houses. However, this was likely due to the limited time frame they were working with. But there is much more in this paper. 

The title is, Universal Design in Architectural Education: Community Liaison on ‘Live Projects’.  The paper is from the 2018 Universal Design Conference held in Dublin.    


The infusion of Universal Design principles into existing courses in
architecture should become evident in any project work undertaken. ‘Live project’ is a term used to describe projects that engage the academic world with real-world groups/organizations.

CCAE sees such projects as valuable exercises in a student’s education, particularly, the practical experience of interaction with ‘user-experts’. In 2016 Cork County Council approached CCAE with a proposal to promote age friendly housing as part of their age-friendly initiative.

CCAE developed this into a ‘live project’ for Year 2 architecture students, continuing the integration of UD into the curriculum. This helps students to identify the negative disabling aspects of ageing and show UD principles can be seen as commonplace. For their part, the County Council were able to expand their own thinking, availing of the less constrained ideas that students brought to their schemes.

An approach to achieving the adoption of UD is to consider the Vitruvian definition of architecture as having ‘commodity, firmness and delight’. From this, the aesthetic integration of features to benefit users of limited ability can be achieved without stigmatising anyone as being old or disabled. Now in its second year the project is being run in West Cork.

The chosen site in Bantry town centre, has interesting challenges for the students to incorporate UD principles. This paper will present imaginative but viable projects as examples of student’ responses to the challenges of designing housing solutions and will report on their ability to integrate age-friendly features at different scales.

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