Universal Design’s Role in Our Future

Posted on May 18, 2011


Designers and building owners often stick their heads in the sand when new regulations are discussed. Many are in denial that sustainability is law in several localities, and some still grit their teeth when having to comply with the American with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADA / ADAAG). In some respect this is natural with new regulation; the status quo is somehow so much more palatable, if only because it is familiar.

Also part and parcel with regulation: unless something is mandated by law, only a select few willingly choose to do something outside the minimum. Thus, universal design, as yet unlegislated, is still generally ignored outside of professionals who are 100% focused on design for the elderly, mainly assisted living, senior center and nursing home design.

Universal design keeps some key parameters in mind; to paraphrase Wikipedia, universal design is equitable, flexible, intuitive and perceptible with a high tolerance for error, low physical effort required, and provides appropriate size or space for use. In a word, it is easy.

Surprisingly, even hospitals eschew universal design as an implemented best practice. LEED catches more ink in the magazines and even the latest ASHRAE guideline has more brainpower dedicated to it at healthcare conferences. I find it surprising that in 2011 there is not more discussion about universal design.

And this is notable considering:

1. Baby Boomer Retirement. As nearly 80 million people transition to elderly over the next fifteen years, demand for senior-friendly design will increase. This includes more environments that will help seniors “age in place” including homes, commercial and public buildings.

2. Disabled War Veterans. An increase in combat-wounded veterans returning home and less access to VA (Veterans Administration) facilities, means more need by regular hospitals to provide for special needs. This includes more wheelchair-friendly spaces, and more redundancy of information for those with lost hearing or sight.

3. Multi-cultural America. More immigration from non-English speaking countries demands public communication in universally-understood ways, such as symbols and colors.

4. Obesity. Americans continue to gain weight, which raises the likelihood of diabetes. One significant complication from diabetes is amputations of the feet and hands. More amputations in the population will require more sensitive design that not only relies less on physical strength and dexterity, but provides more space for larger bodies.

Which regulations affect which populations more is a moot discussion; the point is that good design incorporates what is best for everyone. Interestingly, universal design is by definition, more inclusive in its approach, so it benefits more people.

For instance, ADA requires a 36” wide door frame. More specific guidelines for certain building types, such as the AIA Guidelines for Healthcare Design, suggest 42” in certain instances for functional reasons. Universal design suggests 48” widths because it is simply easier to get in and out of a room with wider doorways.

Not everything will need to be universal, and each building owner and establishment will need to determine what is best for them and the people they regularly serve. More importantly, though, is awareness that the demand is coming, sensitivity will be needed and a plan for action—particularly in retrofitting existing conditions—will be the new norm.