In Universal Design, Comfort and Function for All

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, March 17, 2007

Visualize a home or workplace that serves you well whether you are 25, 55 or 85, a place that you would not have to give up or alter as you age. Visualize a place that is comfortable and functional no matter your physical limitations.

These are the goals of what is called universal design.

Universal design aims to create "products and environments usable by all people without the need for adaptation or specialized design," according to North Carolina State University's Center for Universal Design. In the 1980s, wheelchair-bound architect Ron Mace established the center, part of the school's College of Design, to pursue the idea that artifacts and architecture should work for everyone, regardless of their abilities or disabilities.

Interest in universal design is growing. Last week it was on the agenda for a symposium at Metro headquarters that focused on ensuring access to transit for pedestrians and bicyclists. Also last week, a Wall Street Journal article discussed universal design embodied in homes for baby boomers.

"One in three Americans will be over 50 by the year 2010," Journal writer June Fletcher reported. Mindful of shifting demographics, home builders are more frequently offering houses with universal design features, marketing them to middle-aged buyers who don't yet need them.

The features, which Fletcher noted are usually seen only in housing for the elderly and disabled, include larger showers with built-in seats, higher toilets, fewer overhead kitchen wall cabinets, lower closet rods and higher electrical sockets.

Universal design is not quite the same as design complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that new or renovated buildings open to the public provide reasonable access and functionality to people with physical disabilities.

Today the positive effects of the ADA on public spaces are taken for granted: ramps and elevators as well as stairs; wider corridors and doors; textured walking surfaces; signs with Braille characters; lower drinking fountains and sinks; grab bars on walls in bathrooms, and audible crossing signals at street intersections.

A few of these features may go unnoticed, but many are obvious, reminding those of us who are able-bodied about those who are not. Such features also may remind the able-bodied that they may someday have trouble negotiating steps, steering a wheelchair through a hallway or seeing a walk sign.

But universal design also is a bit of a critique of the ADA 's focus on only the needs of a specific population, the physically handicapped. Advocates of universal design instead propose that, to be truly universal, we should shape environments to fit a much broader population, including the disabled.

Although the distinction between the ADA and universal design may seem subtle, it nevertheless leads to different ways of thinking about design, to new principles and outcomes. The Center for Universal Design has laid out what it considers the key principles:

· Equitable use. Produce designs appealing to and usable by people with diverse abilities, but without segregating or stigmatizing anyone.

· Flexibility in use. Anticipate a wide range of preferences and skills by providing user adaptability -- for example, serving right- and left-handed people equally -- and optional methods of use.

· Simple and intuitive use. Avoid unnecessary complexity and make designs comprehensible, no matter what a user's experience, knowledge and language skills might be.

· Perceptible information. Communicate effectively with all users, whatever their sensory abilities and under all nominal conditions. This means employing multiple modes of expression -- graphic, verbal, tactile -- to achieve maximum clarity, legibility and speed of comprehension. (Designers of highway signs and image-and-data-dense Web pages should memorize this one.)

· Tolerance for error. Minimize hazards and adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions, which is a basic objective in designing almost anything. This requires providing fail-safe features, clear warning signs and signals, understandable error messages and, most important, a logical, safe configuration of critical and noncritical components.

· Low physical effort. Design things to minimize physiological stress or fatigue during routine use. Avoid the need for unusual strength, sustained muscular effort, awkward body positions or excessively repetitive actions. (The rituals and tools for changing a flat tire come to mind.)

· Size and space for approach and use. Most closely paralleling ADA goals, this calls for places, spaces and devices to be proportioned to enable comfortable access, manipulation, use and operation, "regardless of user's body size, posture or mobility." It covers factors such as sight lines and variations in gripping ability.

These principles appear to be common sense. Yet homes, offices, furniture, appliances, and everyday tools and utensils, some thoughtfully conceived by designers and expensive to construct, are not universally user-friendly.

Therefore, achieving universal design objectives requires even more creative thought and often more initial investment.

Will universal design ever be legally required, like the ADA? Will it eventually become integral to America's design and production culture, just as the ADA became second nature to designers, almost a matter of ethics, after the first few years of whining by the building industry?

A federal requirement is unlikely. However, in light of economic and demographic projections, the American marketplace is likely to make universal design more universally embraced.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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