Thinking About Universal Design

Studio G designs projects to be barrier-free, but our real goal is ‘universal design,’ that is, design that takes into account the variety of people’s physical abilities and limitations as we design buildings, interiors, and urban spaces.
Why is universal design so important?  Because physical ability is not a static condition.  Over the course of our lives, our ability to maneuver and function in space changes drastically: from a toddling one year old, to a parent pushing a stroller, to a high school athlete on crutches, to a senior whose hearing, or sight, or mobility is deteriorating.  Universal design is based on consideration of the variety of abilities of those who use a place, not solely the specific regulations of accessibility.
I’ve been thinking about universal design because of recent experience. A potential client recently told me that the owner of the building they were moving into had informed them no ramp would be necessary to mitigate a one-step level change at their main entry, because they had a back door with no step.  I had to explain this would not be acceptable under accessibility regulations—a view that was not well-received and may have cost us the project.  The fact is, even if the condition had met the technical requirements of accessibility regulations, it would be bad design practice, and a potential hazard to visitors.   
I know from personal experience.  I attended an event at Greenberg Traurig, an international law firm whose Boston office is in International Place. The event was held in a space called the greenhouse room, a lovely space for public events, with floor to ceiling windows on three walls, opening onto a landscaped roof, with views beyond of the city.  The room has a major problem: there is a single, rather high step into the room at the main doorway to which visitors are directed. At several previous events, a person stood by the door and warned people to watch their step.  On this occasion, as I walked out, nobody issued a warning, I didn’t remember the step down, and I fell off the step and out the door—fracturing a vertebra. In the following weeks lying in bed, and the many months wearing a brace afterwards, I had plenty of time to contemplate how short a time it takes to get injured, how much time it takes to recover.  While we cannot design away all injuries, thoughtful design, code compliance, and attention to the principles of universal design can prevent injuries, as well as improve the functionality of buildings for the broadest spectrum of citizens.  

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