Planning a Space Using Universal Design Principles

The scooter had to be parked outside because the building does not have a ramp. (Photo by s.e. smith)Universal design aims to make spaces accessible to the greatest number of people without special modifications or additional measures. Such spaces welcome people ranging from older adults with concerns about falls to people with cognitive disabilities who may become disoriented in chaotic spaces, and they can include everything from private homes to institutional buildings. This approach to design allows for great flexibility in terms of use, and enables users of structures to age in place; a couple designing their dream home at 25 who think ahead to 85 can integrate universal design to make sure their home will remain usable and welcoming as they grow older, for instance.

Kaylan Dunlap, LPTA, CASp, of Evan Terry Associates, an architecture firm in Alabama that specializes in Universal Design and works with both local Birmingham remodeling contractors as well as clients in other areas, was kind enough to take some time to talk with me about universal design, some things to keep in mind while developing and planning spaces, and what to look for in a Universal Design consultant. As a wheelchair user, Dunlap knows about the importance of universal design firsthand, as she explained to me in our interview: “I think of Universal Design as having been applied when I realize I’ve gotten into or through a building or space and I’ve not had to plan a strategy to get into the building or space.”

She articulated the Seven Principles of Universal Design developed by Ronald L. Mace and collaborators in 1997: equitable use, flexible use, simple and intuitive, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low effort, size and space for approach and use. All of these qualities integrate to create a space that is easy to use for people of all ability levels, without making anyone feel singled out for attention. Think, for example, of a parking garage that uses colors and shapes to mark out different sections in addition to letters and numbers, to help people with a variety of learning styles remember where they are.

Simple measures like lowering light switches and counters, using rocker switches instead of toggles, and rearranging furniture to create clear and easily-navigated pathways can make a space more welcoming. In any approach to universal design, people should think about what will make the space inviting while minimizing effort for any user. Something like a rocker switch is easier to use for someone with poor motor control, for example, as well as being useful for people with their hands full or in a hurry. The low effort built into the switch design benefits many different users of the space, without inconveniencing anyone and it is a relatively simple project that can be completed quickly by a local electrician.

Measures like building in ramps and railings as well as other accessibility measures for people with mobility impairments are also an important component of universal design. Dunlap highlighted a successful example in her discussion of the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, California: “The first time I visited there I breezed in the front door without any effort, stopped at the information desk, and then went to the large ramp that is in the middle of the building so that I could go up to the second floor. It’s a red circular ramp that snakes up from the main lobby to the floor above...This big red ramp is inviting, well designed and constructed, but it also provides a good means of egress if the building had to be evacuated quickly.”

She points out that the origins of the Barrier Free movement lie in the 1950s, when disabled activists involved in civil rights started working on ways to make spaces more accessible to everyone. Universal design is a natural extension of that movement, integrating the needs of all potential users of a space, and it also aims to help people meet accessibility standards without significant expenditure or cumbersome additions to a space.

Popular perception of accessibility is that it’s ugly and expensive, when this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Architects as noted as Frank Lloyd Wright integrated universal design into some of their work, illustrating that it’s possible for a home to be both accessible and beautiful. Wright’s Laurent House has aged beautifully since its construction in 1952, and has recently been converted into a museum. A far cry from the ugly design people usually think of when they hear the word “accessibility.”

Dunlap recommends working with a consultant when redesigning or building a new facility: “The benefit of having more than one set of eyes looking at something is that different people see different things in different ways, each bringing something special to the table.” Dunlap also points out that consultants receive substantial training in various issues that laypeople may not think of; for example, someone focusing on access for wheelchair users might not consider how to make a space easier to use for people with cognitive disabilities.

She says, “Consumers should look for someone certified in UD who is going to take into consideration the needs of the client, who is going to be using the space and in what ways, as well as applicable building codes.” Several organizations offer Universal Design certifications to their members, and their standards are available for public review for people who want to know more about them. Customers can also ask to see a portfolio of prior work, and may want to talk with prior clients about their experiences with the designer.

For those with low budgets, it can help to develop a series of concise questions and concerns, ranked by importance. These can be discussed in an initial interview with a consultant, who can help the client develop the most cost-effective way of modifying or designing a space with universal design in mind.

Get Free Quotes

Looking for a Pro? Call us at (866) 441-6648

Top Cities Covered by our Remodeling Contractors

Get Free Quotes
  • Service Needed
  • Zip Code
Get quotes from qualified local contractors