Protect the Architectural Fabric and Your Wallet
by Matt Pietras, AIA
Director of Architecture
Almost without disagreement, I can state that from a bottom-line perspective, good design is a wise investment for building owners and for architects. As an example, many studies conclude that a building that smartly and efficiently incorporates Sustainable Design is a wise investment—one with a good ROI, with benefits to human health and the building owner’s pocketbook through energy savings. I argue that the same case can be made for “Universal Design”—a design approach that recognizes and strives to accommodate the broadest possible spectrum of human ability in the design of all products, environments and information systems. While other industries have caught on, architecture—perhaps not surprisingly—is slow to adapt.
Some perspective: According to census statistics, 1 in 5 people nationwide have a disability that can be classified under the ADA. That’s 54 million people. Since 1990, the Fed has been protecting the differently-abled under no less than five Americans with Disabilities Act Titles, covering non-discrimination in employment, in public places, in commercial properties, and communications. Those laws, particularly Titles II & III, are the government’s minimum requirements. But, arguably, because of how they are written—exceedingly prescriptive and absolute—they falsely give designers and building owners the impression that there is only one way to provide accessibility. And, consequently, the prescriptions are followed in a vacuum lacking good design thinking that yield the lowest common denominator, and are a poor financial investment.
Case in point: The ubiquitous “handicap” ramp to the side of the grand staircase leading to the front entrance of a building. Or worse, the horrendous carbuncle of an “HC lift”. Let alone marginalizing and stigmatizing the differently-abled, such design—if you can call it that—not only reduces the overall quality of the built environment, it is a poor use of financial resources from a building owner perspective. Building owners are making one investment for the able-bodied public, and a secondary investment—sometimes more expensive—for the differently-abled. (And, don’t forget that architects must double the effort to design and draw both features.) Building owners and architects must do more, much more and stop the rote behavior of following the ADA. I am not calling for a repeal of the ADA—it provides value in a court of law. Rather, I suggest taking the more economically sensible approach and employ the strategies of Universal Design. Unlike the federal law, Universal Design is a non-prescriptive set of guidelines that:
• Eliminates the need for special features and spaces
• Avoids stigmatization of looking different or more expensive
• Virtually invisible
• Often called “more inclusive user-based design”
• “Good Design”: meeting the needs of as many users as possible
The emergent practice of Universal Design is a useful in tool the architect’s toolbox and is finding its way into building owners’ lexicons. At MKThink, along with our commitment to sustainable design, it is another building block in our approach to “good” design. We encourage designers and building owners to understand principles of Universal Design and engage each other in discussion of how we can improve upon the status quo and be making more sound investments in the built environment.
To learn more about the principles of Universal Design, visit the Center for Universal Design website at NC State University: http://www.ncsu.edu/project/design-projects/udi/center-for-universal-design/the-principles-of-universal-design/