Universal design

Expanding the frontiers of universal design

Interior designers take accessibility beyond building code requirements
Thursday, May 14, 2015
By Michelle Ervin

Universal design encompasses much more than physical accessibility. It means creating spaces that are meaningful to their diverse users, it means going beyond building code requirements, and it means including an operational component in accommodation.

These were some of the messages from The Changing Face of Accessible Design, a panel discussion amongst Interior Designers of Canada (IDC) members at IFMA Toronto’s recent fmEducation Day.

Creating meaningful spaces for diverse users

Anne Carlyle, principal, Carlyle Design Associates, spoke about designing accessible and welcoming public spaces, mainly through the lens of her work at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto.

Carlyle stressed the importance of setting a project vision. The pre-design work for the kids rehabilitation hospital involved day-long charrettes, wheelchairs workshops in which everyone involved navigated the day with the mobility devices, client and community engagement, and site visits to eight exemplary facilities in the U.S.

The resulting project demonstrates various features of universal design, which, for Carlyle, isn’t just about creating accessible spaces, but also creating spaces that are flexible in use and meaningful to their diverse users.

“With Bloorview one of the metaphors was bridge or bridging,” she said. “The building itself bridges between the natural ravine and the city. The care programs, the services that are provided there, bridge between disability and ability … so the building itself consists of two solid blocks with a more transparent bridging zone, which is full of light and has views in both directions to the ravine and to the city.”

The facility’s connection to the natural environment also contributed to establishing a sense of community and place, which rounded out Carlyle’s key strategies for designing accessible and welcoming public spaces.

Going beyond building code requirements

Amy Pothier, accessibility specialist, Quadrangle Architects, detailed Quadrangle’s move in 2012 from a totally inaccessible studio environment to a totally accessible and universally designed space. Quadrangle’s renovation of the space allowed the firm to “practice what it preached,” said Pothier.

The goal of the project was to ensure anything that was designed new would be universally accessible, she said. Some of these features include a barrier-free reception desk, signage with Braille and a gender-neutral washroom.

Another aspect of universal design is the idea of equity. Though there is assigned seating at Quadrangle, everyone has the same type of desk, which can be relocated within the space in the span of an hour. Everyone also shares the best view in the space, which was given to the communal annex/kitchen area.

“Most people think of accessible and universal design as something that is a hindrance to the design…” said Pothier, “but there’s a great opportunity to make this space look beautiful and to integrate universal and accessible design into a practice.”

Ultimately, Quadrangle’s space serves to showcase just this, acting as an educational tool for clients, designers and visitors. For example, its universal washroom bears markings showing the eight-foot turning radius required to navigate the space in a mobility device such as a wheelchair.

“Even that person that’s not specifically interested in universal and accessible design will have the opportunity to benefit from it at some point in their lives, or know somebody that will be benefitting from designing responsibly,” said Pothier.

Including an operational component in accommodation

Brian Everton, principal, Design for All, talked about his involvement in Winnipeg’s recently opened Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which included working with the architectural design team, the exhibit design team and the wayfinding consultants.

Funded by all three levels of government, the $351-million project needed to meet the National Building Code, Manitoba’s Building Code amendments and the City of Winnipeg’s accessibility design standards, as well as CSA B651 Accessible Design for the Built Environment.

The 12-floor, 260,000-square-foot building is outfitted with 1:12 ramps totaling a length of three-quarters of a kilometre. In the ramp canyon, where the ramps criss-cross between exhibition halls, the strategic use of clear glass ensures kids and anyone else who may not be able to peer over the 42-inch sides can view the space.

The museum itself, noted Everton, is more about ideas than artifacts, which presented some interesting challenges. Its many LCD screens required six outputs for the audio component because, being a federal museum, everything had to be in both official languages, including the captioning and sign language for the hearing impaired and deaf.

Everton now sits on the museum’s inclusive design advisory committee, which addresses unresolved and emerging accessibility issues.

“The very well-designed thing can be really defeated simply by the janitor moving the garbage can next to the door in the washroom, and suddenly I can no longer get in and out of the washroom because the garbage can is in the wrong place,” he said.

“Architecturally, we can take out a lot of barriers, but it is also just as important that the operational side of a facility also be included in what is accommodation, what is accessibility, what is universal design.”

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.