Monday, January 08, 2007

New Noblism in Architecture - Universal Design

At last, after years of dominent "movements" exposed for ridiculous theories to guise an empty formalism, a large body of designers have begun to embrace philosophies ground in social, ecological, and economic concepts to create design that strives to meet a virtuous AND beautiful result. Precepts of "green" design, New Urbanism, and landscape urbanism have been incorporated into design solutions with a greater intensity than architecture magazines would have you believe "post-modernism" and "deconstructivism" ever did. Above all, with little exception, these new socially-conscious, systems-integrated, material-sensitive design solutions have created better buildings and better towns and cities.

Among these "noble" design philosophies is the seldom-applied concept of "universal design." Much misunderstood as an application of American with Disabilities Act guidelines, "universal design" as first-prescribed by principles published by late-architect Ron Mace, strives for simple and intuitive uses that are accessible to person's of many disabilities and more comfortable for fully-able individuals.

An article in today's New York Times, illustrates "universal design" with the nation's first large-scale residential building to apply the concept to each unit. From Lisa Chamberlain's article:

"While building codes set a minimum standard regarding accessibility, universal design is a relatively new concept that seeks to go beyond those codes to make the built environment usable by all people without the need for adaptation. This might include kitchen islands with adjustable-height countertops, front-loading washers and dryers, roll-in showers, and no-step entrances, eliminating the need for ramps.

But the important point, according to universal design advocates, is that it looks and feels like a normal apartment building. Rather than relying on designs that can segregate people according to their disability (impaired vision versus low mobility, for example), the intent of universal design is to create products and environments usable by as many people as possible, including people with no disabilities at all."

Universal design, while a seemingly common sense consideration, mostly defers to defunct standards and antiquated design paradigms. "Universal" is as simple as reconsidering bathroom design, such as human-comfort dimensions of bathroom stalls, the use of grab bars, and roll-in showers. In a broader sense, at-grade entry sequences, multi-sensory experiences, intuitive layouts, and considered path of travel (vertical and horizontal) of ALL building participants could change the way the core of everyday buildings function - in much the same way that environmental design and systems integration are making better buildings and cities for PEOPLE.

Below: Typical Habitat for Humanity house in Greater Cleveland (at left). Are four steps necessary - or simply the prescribed standard for basic residential design? Could the porch surface be at the lawn elevation (right)? From the moment of completion, the at-grade house will already avoid the sometimes necessary addition of a hideous front-door wheelchair ramp.


Anonymous Scott Rains said...

This comment caught my eye:

"Universal design, while a seemingly common sense consideration, mostly defers to defunct standards and antiquated design paradigms."

What I observe in most popular articles, incuding good one's like Chamberlain's, is an apparent lack of knowledge that Universal Design is not a specific set of design solutions put an approach defined by seven principles:

11:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sadly much of the public would want to choose a house with steps. It is the buying public that has to start considering our population as a whole and as that demand increases convincing the builders to apply the principles of universal design will have arrived Thank you Judy Guiraud and my service dog Gizmo

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