Accessibility Regulations and a Universal Design Philosophy inspire the Design Process

Instead of stifling creativity, a climate of access pushes architects to be inventive.

Accessibility is a mandate; universal design is a movement. Accessible, adaptable, and visitable environments are covered in the codes, standards, and regulations. Beginning with the Architectural Barriers Act in 1968 and culminating with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, the federal government has enacted four major laws that require public places and publicly funded projects to provide physical and programmatic accessibility to people with disabilities. Standards that meet the physical requirements of the laws are spelled out in guidelines. Model building codes and local codes have been modified to meet and, in some cases, exceed the federal requirements. Universal design is a worldwide movement that approaches the design of the environment, products, and communications with the widest range of users in mind. It is known elsewhere in the world as design for all, life span design, and inclusive design. The U.S. origins of its philosophy date back three decades to the disability rights movement, but the seven governing principles (sidebar, page 147), which call for designed environments that are equitable, flexible, intuitive, perceptible, safe, easy, and accommodating, were crafted in the past decade.

Civil rights is the rationale for accessibility. The accessibility laws focus on people within a narrow range of specific disabilities, such as those who use wheelchairs or have visual or hearing impairments. They ensure access to designated types of buildings based on assumptions about particular barriers in the environment for example, they stipulate that there must be one level entry into public buildings for someone who uses a wheelchair, and that a person who doesn't see should have audio signals and braille signs in an elevator.

Universal design comes from incorporating these guiding principles into underlying design thinking. There are no specific goals to reach; there is instead a framework for creating solutions. Universal design asks designers to rethink some fundamental formal architectural concepts, to contemplate environmental equity for all kinds of users, and to consider a variety of ways the environment can be designed or adapted to accommodate people's changing needs, such as those of the aging or of people who don't speak the dominant language. Providing an accessible environment often means adding a few special features designated as accessible. Providing a universal environment means creating a space that doesn~t segregate some and prevent others from using it independently, but does benefit many whose needs have not traditionally been considered. The largest cohort that universal design in Europe and America seeks to include are aging baby boomers, who will soon begin to find the world more difficult to navigate. Proponents insist that universal design meets the highest aesthetic standards and contest the stereotype of accessibility that creates places that are segregating, costly, and ugly.

Making Accessibility Invisible

It's possible to illustrate the seven principles of universal design with architectural examples. However, outstanding examples of universal design are so seamlessly integrated into the architectural solution that they are rarely noticed for their common characteristics. "The best projects are those where you don't notice the design challenge, be it a steep slope or accessibility," says James H. Collins, Jr., president of Boston based Payette Associates. "If you approach something as a [design] 'problem' that you have to get around, then the resulting design highlights the problem and shows the solution. It says, look how clever the designer was to solve this difficult problem."

Payette Associates completed an addition to the Barus and Holley engineering complex at Brown University in 2001. The small project (18,000 square feet) provides for state of the art engineering laboratories and classrooms. The new Charles H. Giancarlo Engineering Laboratories has produced a dramatic transformation of the complex. While the addition meets program requirements, it also rationalizes level changes between existing buildings and creates both a terminus and a connection to the campus pedestrian spine.

A 10 foot grade difference between the engineering complex, the campus walk, and an existing parking lot had resulted in a parking lot on the campus side of the building, a wide stairway to a blank wall, and an entrance on the side opposite the campus. The previous circulation through the complex was accessible via a ramp and elevator; the new solution qualifies as universal, because all users enter and move among the buildings using the same circulation system.

The pavilion is entered from a grade level plaza through a grand curved facade, the new terminus of Manning Walk, which is the ceremonial and functional campus axis. The elegance of the curved facade is repeated in a curved automatic sliding door, an example of universal design. With a full 8 foot opening, it requires no "dance" at a swinging door as people decide who opens it or who goes first. Conversations continue uninterrupted; opposing traffic doesn't have to stop to allow others to pass first; heavy wind pressure doesn't require extra strength to control the doors, and no special opening devices are needed for accessibility. Four hundred people pass seamlessly through the complex every day. The door simply whooshes open as people approach and closes behind them, reminding us that good technology supports universally designed solutions.

Once inside the pavilion, all the new rooms are organized off the circulation ramp that bisects the new building and connects with the older buildings at four different levels. Windows into the new spaces and glass sides on the ramp open light and views horizontally. Spaces adjacent to the ramp permit light and views to penetrate vertically all the way from the clerestories at the top of the circulation "concourse" to the basement below it. The plaza at the entrance to the building, the action in the labs, and the newly rational circulation have made a great new place that, in Jim Collins's words, is "equally accessible to the poetry major and the math major."

Something for Everyone

"We never used the term 'universal design' during the design process," comments Janeann Upp, executive director of the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) in Washington [RECORD, August 2003, page I 11 ], designed by Antoine Predock with Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen. "However, way finding was a major consideration throughout our discussions, along with Predock's vision that the building retain some mystery as it unfolds." She continues, "I came from museums where people were always lost. You will notice that we have virtually no signage, yet people return their museum maps unused."

TAM is a small building that features a grand processional ramp, inspired by nearby Mt. Ranier, as the major circulation spine. It wraps around an open air stone garden, and the galleries wrap around the ramp. In the usual sequential course of viewing the galleries, one will naturally return to the central ramp and the garden to pass to the next gallery. There is also a diminutive stair along the exterior wall. It is tucked almost invisibly within the depth of the wall separating two galleries, in a clever reversal of the usual primacy of stairs. By featuring the ramp, there is an equality of movement through the galleries. "The only place that doesn't work that well is the last bit leading to the education wing," comments Upp. "People don't seem to know they can continue up there. We are working on using some art or perhaps some signage to draw them on."

To wander through a building with so little signage is a welcome relief. Museums are filled with first time visitors, and the TAM administration has tested and monitored how the building has performed for them. Signage will remain in our lives, but in a truly universally designed world, millions of those little blue "handicap accessible" signs could be eliminated.

Airports face an even more complex challenge to move occasional users to their destinations easily. The consequences of being lost in a museum are minor; being lost and confused in an airport is another matter. Boston based Coco Raynes Associates has developed a wayfinding system for the Charles de Gaulle Airport's Terminal 2C. The terminal installation was completed in 2002, using products designed more than 10 years ago by Coco Raynes, the firm's principal. The beauty of Raynes's solution is that it has many applications: It can be adapted for existing non universally designed environments. "Gérard Besson, chief architect of the airport, chose our system because it could be retrofitted into existing construction as well as used in new construction," explained Raynes.

The problem to solve was, in fact, specifically related to accessibility, but the solution is an invention that plays to a broad section of users. Passengers are dropped off at one location at the terminal. Those who need help with checking in and boarding must find their way from this drop off to a cantankerous revolving door and through the terminal to a reception area where they can request an escort.

Raynes's solution begins with a tactile, audio, and visual map at the drop off point. It offers detailed instructions in all three means (tactile, aural, and visual) and three languages for users to find their way along the airport sidewalk explaining how to manipulate the speed of the door, if necessary and tells them where they will find the next information station along the route to their destination.

The map is a 6Y2 foot glass panel mounted horizontally at a slight angle and a height that is comfortable for viewing and touching. The panel shows the whole building, including services and amenities, in a diagram so that people can orient themselves within the terminal. Its messages are reinforced specifically for people with low vision by a bright yellow rail, the Raynes Rail. This protects the map and provides a place to lean, has instructions in braille along its edge and photosensors that activate the audio instructions. The same rail can be placed at strategic points along a route to provide additional information or to reinforce a pathway with visual, audio, and tactile information. Originally conceived for transportation systems, the rail has been used in museums in France and Colombia to explain exhibitions and direct movement. In Charles de Gaulle, way finding is further enhanced by bright yellow "tac dots" embedded in the floor surface to help direct the passengers to their destinations.

The system has obvious advantages for people who don't speak the host country language or for any infrequent and first time users. By providing an orientation at the airport entry, all passengers can quickly familiarize themselves with the layout before entering the terminal. The desired sequence to check in, visit amenities and services, pass through security, and reach gates can be planned without repeated help from airport personnel and confusing signs. The pathways and destinations can be checked and reinforced with the system, which is being designed into the new Terminal E at de Gaulle. According to Raynes, "The new system will follow the same pattern as the glass panel map at the drop off. The railing segments will be used to direct passengers to restaurants and restrooms. The floor markings in the new terminal will be granite, however, in keeping with the architecture of the building." It's a modest system, capable of being implemented incrementally, with grand effect for many types of users.

Play Therapy

Maneuvering through and using buildings is a primary focus for universal design, but the landscaped and urban environments are equally important. The Children's Play Garden at the New York University Howard A. Rusk Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine in New York City provides the neighborhood kids, as well as the ones living at the hospital, with an incredible variety of activities crammed into a tiny urban space. Children living in a rehabilitation hospital may seem unlikely candidates for an adventure filled playground. The purpose of the garden is to be a place that inspires kids with disabilities to engage in activities that challenge them physically.

Sonja Johansson, ASLA (of Johansson Design Collaborative This link will open a new browser window., formerly of Johansson and Walcavage), a landscape architect in Lincoln, Massachusetts, created the play garden for the Rusk children. "Indoors, even in bright and cheerful therapy rooms, exercises are part of treatment," explains Johansson. "By moving outdoors with grass and plants and the sky overhead, exercises that are 'therapy' when performed under direction within the hospital walls become 'play,' and the children will naturally do them again and again." Nature-oriented and interactive design may be therapeutic, but it is also complicated and enticing. The neighborhood kids flock to the garden because it has features that appeal to all levels of abilities: textures that are hard to walk over, four ways to climb to the top of the slide, water to play in, stones to move around, three kinds of swings to choose from, window boxes to plant, a grassy hill to roll down, a playhouse with chinning bars, struc tures that make noise) others that shine and catch sunlight. The hospital greenhouse program spills over to the children)s garden by teaching them plant names and about growing plants and how to make and use com post. The variety keeps kids of all ages and abilities engaged. The universal appeal is obvious, and the benefit for all kids playing together and being challenged by the same environment is equally evident.

Universal design appears in many forms and any type of design situation, in small gestures and large ones. Academic based institutes such as the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University ( and the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA) This link will open a new browser window. ( at State University of New York at Buffalo have been leaders and resources in universal design for a long time. Several municipalities have taken the lead to incorporate universal design into public and private design.

New York City, working with IDEA, developed a handbook, Universal Design New York This link will open a new browser window. ( illustrated with specific examples. The City of Chicago's Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities This link will open a new browser window. ( advocates for universal design through education and outreach and by sponsoring two competitions. Internationally, London Mayor Ken Livingstone published Accessible London: Achieving an Inclusive Environment This link will open a new browser window. (
spg_accessible_london/accessible_london.pdf), an exhaustive plan that will require all development proposals to include a statement showing how they have incorporated the principles of universal design.

Raynes, Payette, and Johansson are all 2003 recipients of awards from the first competition for universal design sponsored by Adaptive Environments (, an international advocacy organization that is actively promoting universal design through education, technical assistance, and conferences. "Our goal is to draw attention to the principles of universal design in order to influence the performance of design for a wide range of users," explained Valerie Fletcher, the executive director. "This sort of thing can't be legislated. Design is influenced by trends that have nothing to do with laws. We want to draw attention to excellence and beauty in universal design and let that lead to shifts in design. It was important to us to limit our competition to built projects in order to showcase existing models."

Architects have practiced "sustainable" and "universal" design since long before they became Sustainable Design and Universal Design. Energy efficiency and accessibility have made their way into the codes. There will always be architects who doggedly meet the minimum prescribed standards, but the best examples of both will continue to come from those who embrace the concepts, push the technology, and use them as a platform for invention.

Barbara Knecht
Availability Information: 

This article was originally published in Architectural Record. It is available on the Architectural Record website: Accessibility Regulations and a Universal Design Philosophy Inspire the Design Process This link will open a new browser window. (
conteduc/archives/0401edit-1.asp). [Free registration required.]