From the Government Studio

Welcoming ALL to This Place: Universal Design

sketch of people

By Debbie Adams, AIADebbie is an architect and project manager in CRSA’s Government Studio.

“Traditional” design of buildings has long been oriented towards one “average” physical type: a young, adult male.   As children, as older adults, or as people with physical disabilities—temporary or permanent—none of us are always “average” and many of us are never “average.”

Buildings are built for people, but for which people?  What about a child? What about a mother pushing a stroller? What about a shopper struggling at a door with Christmas presents?  What about an arthritic elderly man?  And, what about people with disabilities?  As designers, we must be aware of the diversity among users of the spaces we provide. We should be speaking of and designing for all members of our society.

Technology has helped us extend our lives.  As a result, we live longer but are more likely to experience a disability some time in our lives.  All of us will one day have a parent, spouse, child, relative or friend with a disability and the world that we build is the world that they will live in.

The design of a building can itself promote or hinder the “full, conscious, and active participation” of its users.  A designer, by carefully influencing the built environment, has a great opportunity to make it more possible for people to use their unique set of God-given abilities, talents and gifts.  Conversely, when buildings present barriers to the full and active participation of all, the entire society loses.

Universal Design is a philosophy advocating design that considers the changes taking place throughout the entire life span of a person, from childhood to old age.  Universal Design is an attempt to extend accessibility into the environment to such a degree that it is accepted as the norm rather than being viewed as an adaptation for special needs.  It envisions design that serves the maximum number of people in the safest, most integrated, most convenient manner and endeavors to exclude no one.

Facilities and programs designed by the methods of Universal Design accommodate people with disabilities and do not prohibit other segments of the population from utilizing them—it enhances the usability for everyone.  This is certainly not the case with non-accessible design.  The cost of Universal Design can be negligible if thought through during the design stage.  This modest cost is insignificant in relationship to the population who directly receive the benefits.

The key to universal design is awareness and sensitivity to the needs of all potential users; again, not just those who fit our definition of the “average” person.  Universal Design is not only for the benefit of individuals with disabilities but for everyone at some point in their life. This essential component of sensitivity brings about a universally accessible solution that truly works for the person with a disability as well as for those without a disability.  One way that sensitivity can be developed is to include those with a wide range of abilities in the planning and design process.  This is a critical element in the universal design of facilities.  Frequently, modifications to a facility are based on assumptions of what a person with a disability wants to do or what they are capable of doing.  Consulting with people who have disabilities can save money before costly modifications are made.  People with disabilities can offer creative and inexpensive solutions to design problems due to their experience of disability.

There is accommodation of some kind for everyone in the man-made environment.  We design the environment to make people feel comfortable and be productive.  We are all accommodated by design everywhere we go so that we are not in some way disabled, so that we are comfortable, so that we are productive.  It is important to remember who the “we” includes.

  • Design for the widest possible audience.
  • Involve people with the widest range of abilities in the design process.
  • Provide a diversity of experiences including different levels of accessibility.
  • Provide access in the most integrated setting possible.

Universal Design does not require a lot of cost, it requires a lot of thought.

Case Study: Holladay Lions Recreation Center, Salt Lake County

Rec Center Restroom-Lobby
Rec Center Pool

 Universal Design Principles Used:

  • Color: Bands of contrasting color were used to clearly define the edge of the swimming pool.
  • Lighting: The natural light has been regulated to control glare in the pool space and to aid in clearly orienting a person with low vision.
  • Texture:  Textures of the pool finishes were chosen to be non-abrasive and without sharp edges to eliminate harm to people who have little sensation and sensitive skin conditions.
  • Layout:  The layout of the building is structured for easy comprehension which has been emphasized by the placement of a large welcoming desk at the main entrance of the building.
  • Multiple means of entry to pool:
    • Wet ramp – A ramp with handrails into the pool that can be used by a person using am aquatic wheelchair provided by the facility.
    • Zero Depth Entry – A wide, low sloping entry into the pool that allows people with disabilities or children to choose the depth of water at which they feel most comfortable.
    • Dry ramp / transfer wall – A downward ramp at the outside edge of the pool that a person in a wheelchair would use to get to a level close to their seat height to allow a transfer over the pool wall.
    • Hydraulic lift – a portable lift that can be installed at various locations around the pool that will lower a person into the swimming pool.
    • Wide stairs with handrails – for ambulatory people that might have difficulty walking or who would like a little reassurance of stability as they enter the water. 

*The Holladay Lions Recreation Center was completed by Debbie prior to her employment at CRSA.


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