Thoughts on Universal Design and Accessibility

February 27, 2021

This post was developed in 2019, and is brought to you now because accessibility is always a timely topic.

One of the primary responsibilities of architects is to ensure accessibility to public spaces. Equal access to public spaces is a civil right, stemming from the 1989 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). And yet, I have seen and read about cases where access was not sufficiently considered, resulting in angry building users, headaches for owners, and even lawsuits. Even worse, I have heard comments from clients, building owners, and, yes, other architects, that providing accessibility is a chore, onerous, disrupts our designs, and/or is too expensive. This is embarrassing and unacceptable. If architects want to maintain their position as “public intellectuals” on the forefront of positive social change, then we need to get with the times, and the times require universal design.

Universal design generally does not mean tacking on expensive add-ons to give a few people access to areas that able-bodied people can use (like stair lifts), at the expense of their dignity and self-determination. And it cannot involve a one-size-fits-all approach, where we take a single solution and apply it to all cases, since there is almost never one solution that does fit truly all people. This means that ingenuity and creativity are required, and the right balance, to provide the best solutions for a range of users, is a moving target. In California, the only requirement for continuing education in architecture is five hours of ADA training every two years (although my firm is working to add net zero energy training to this requirement); this rule is to ensure that we continue to serve the public with the best and most up-to-date accessibility knowledge as solutions change and are refined. While architects in California are held to the California Building Code (CBC), which sometimes goes above and beyond what is required in the ADA, ultimately building owners are responsible for respecting the civil rights of their employees and the public. And owners expect us to ensure that what we design meets those requirements.

So if universal design isn’t about one solution, what is it? To achieve universal design, we try to design our buildings and spaces in a way that can be used by as many people as possible, but also is flexible enough to accommodate atypical uses. The ideal solution is one that works for everyone, but of course, the range of diversity in human experience means that there are rarely single solutions that can do that. Still, we try to account for a wide range of experience, without designing in any impediments to those whose experience falls outside the “average”.

Ed Roberts Campus main entry

As part of my work on the Stanford Graduate School of Education project, my team and I visited the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, to understand how the design team, owners, and users approached universal design for their building. Ed Roberts was a pioneer in disability rights advocacy, and the campus named for him (really a single large building) houses a range of organizations that work with people of all abilities. The design-focused podcast 99% Invisible did a great piece on universal design and Ed Roberts, focused on curb cuts. During our tour, we observed a number of simple and straightforward changes to the design that made the project easier for a whole range of users: tactile changes in floor materials that make it clear what different areas of the space are for (general open space versus walkways); low-level elevator buttons, which accommodate both wheelchair users and anyone carrying something in both hands; and larger RFID sensors at entry doors, so you don’t have to get as close to the sensor to activate it.

Still, accommodating different users of varying abilities is not easy, and reaching the final design took significant effort by all members of the team to find the best ways to meet different needs. Our guide from LightHouse for the Blind described some examples of how different user groups have needs that sometimes conflict with each other, so it takes careful listening, thoughtfulness, and sometimes compromise to find solutions that are acceptable to all users. Needs also change over time – accommodating more powered wheelchairs, with charging needs and different space requirements from manual wheelchairs, has become more common. In short, it’s critical to have input from the people who will actually be using the spaces we design, and not just to follow minimum ADA and code standards, if we want to provide spaces that will be comfortable for people of all abilities.

Ed Roberts Campus central space Ed Roberts Campus elevator

One of the most well-known accessibility features of the campus is a large spiral ramp near the main entrance, which is wide enough for wheelchair users and non-wheelchair users to proceed together to the second floor. The ramp also passes by a mural of historical photographs of the disability rights movement, and gives the simple act of traveling together an elevated importance within the building. The ramp serves multiple functions: it operates as a symbol of how people of all abilities can move forward together, as a practical piece of architecture, and as an eye-catching centerpiece of the main hall.

Ed Roberts Campus ramp

One last thought about universal design: Some folks might be thinking that this is a topic that’s only relevant to public buildings, where all members of the public need to have access. But principles of universal design can apply equally well to single family residences. As our families age in place, or even while recovering from an injury, accessible features like wider doorways, flush thresholds, lever-style door hardware, light switches that can be operated with an elbow, removable base cabinets at sinks, and built-in support for future grab bars in bathrooms, can all be incredibly useful. I personally appreciate the elbow-switches during COVID, and flush transitions make it easier to roll things (like our portable washing machine) around the apartment. If you’re considering renovating or buying a new home, don’t forget to check for these kinds of features that can make your home more comfortable for family members of all ages.

Since the time of my tour of the Ed Roberts Campus, I have joined Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects myself and I am proud to be part of a team that takes this kind of work so seriously. If you’re interested in learning more, I suggest checking out some interviews and resources with disability rights advocates and architects, Chris Downey and Karen Braitmayer, FAIA. I always love to hear about more resources, so send me a message if you have more I should check out!