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10 things to know about Universal Design

Architect Deborah Pierce, author of "The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages & Abilities" (Taunton, 2012), addressed attendees at the Universal Design Summit 5 in St. Louis in May, and shared the 10 lessons she learned while compiling the book:

Lesson 1. "Accessibility is a window into Universal Design. We are specific, and designs need to be specific for each person. What is a study for a man who is blind? What is a bedroom like for a person who has trouble breathing and needs oxygen? What is a bathroom like for a woman who has had polio? ... Homes are laboratories for what works."

Lesson 2. "Design really matters," she said, explaining that "universal"Design really matters," she said, explaining that "universal design is really about build it right." It's "big picture thinking;" for example, elevator landing design matters. "How can we make that experience better? ... Floor plans matter."

Lesson 3. Pierce believes that rooms are obsolete. In the accessible home, it’s about space. On so many levels, open floor plans work: vision, hearing, maneuverability. Form informs layout. "Activity centers – not walls – define spaces.”

Lesson 4. “We want to prevent accidents – and address their effects.” It’s important to understand why certain designs work, why we put in certain features, she said, noting that designers should “specify materials and details for safety” with the goal to:

  1. "Reduce maintenance/injury//stress.” It doesn’t have to be expensive.
  2. Home ergonomics: for example, “place storage within reach and where needed,” wherever things accumulate.
  3. “Improve visibility.”
  4. “Design healthy environments.”
  5. “Build correctly now – avoid repairs later.”
  6. Solar design is important; lower operating costs.The clien

Lesson 5. The client knows best. “Universal design is about indulgent design," Pierce said. It needs to be right for this particular person, so:

  1. “Engage the client.”
  2. “Match safety devices to user abilities.”
  3. “Install safety handles at transitional spots.”
  4. “Attend to the real activities of daily living.”

Lesson 6. “Aim for delight: We should settle for nothing less than delight," she said. Elevate the activities of daily living, such as eating and bathing. “Make it FUNctional!”

Lesson 7. Code compliance isn’t enough. “Usability is the standard,” she said, but we should “define optimum, not just maximum/minimum.”

  1. “Coordinate design and medical professionals.”
  2. “Happiness is the goal.”
  3. Not just access but how satisfactorily the design works. “Designing for the whole person.”
  4. “It’s not just the person with the disability but the family experience.” Those relationships are an important part of the design.
  5. “Build-in flexibility.”

Lesson 8. Architects need people-skills. “Build trust, connect, listen, facilitate, empower, heal, have patience, be a team player, be willing to learn new approaches,” Pierce said.

  1. “Tend to the emotional as well as the physical.”
  2. “Eliminate disabilities. Foster abilities.”

Lesson 9. Overcome resistance to universal design. Americans are not only in denial that we'll ever be old or disabled, she said, but we have a stubborn independence. Architects have a perception that "if we talk about how bad things can be, it doesn’t sell. Sell it as the good life." Acknowledge to clients: “You’ll be young/fit/healthy forever, but your friends and family won’t!”

Lesson 10. Practice Universal Design. " Universal design is:

  1. “Not tweaks, but a holistic vision….”
  2. “Not dowdy or institutional, but the way people want to live today.”
  3. Not nursing homes. “It’s not a medical environment we are creating.”
  4. Putting people before gadgets.”
  5. “Not expensive or big. Just smart.”
  6. “Not elaborate. Just commonsense.”

"Disabilities are an interaction between a person and the environment. ... Without barriers, there are no disabilities.…”

Universal design also speaks to justice and the rightness of being a responsible member of the community," Pierce said. "It's just the smart thing to do."

Hear, hear.