Why Universal Design is Fundamental

Universal Design is good design that applies to people with or without disabilities

Universal Design is a reasonably well-used term with regards to housing or buildings, but I would say the concept is relatively misunderstood.  Universal Design is fundamentally good design that accommodates all users, with or without any disabilities.  It is general in context and applies to residential, civic or commercial applications, but it is important, much like the Disability and Discrimination Act, to ensure fair and equitable access for all.

History of Universal Design

The late 20th Century brought a heightened awareness to civil and human rights.  With increased life expectancy and veterans returning from the Second World War, (many with disabilities from injuries), the needs of these groups led to the introduction of equal rights and anti-discrimination legislation.

In the 1970s a general concept of accessible design emerged, affecting the design of products, services and physical environments. Related areas such as Assistive Technology and User-Centred design also gained momentum.

The Seven Principles of Universal Design

These principles were developed in 1997 by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers at North Carolina State University.  The purpose of the Principles is to guide the design of environments, products, processes and communications.

The principles are summarised as follows, and full details of the 7 Principles can be found on the USA Center for Excellence in Universal Design website.

Principle 1: Equitable Use

  • • The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

Principle 2: Flexibility in Use

  • • The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use

  • • Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

Principle 4: Perceptible Information

  • • The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

Principle 5: Tolerance for Error

  • • The design minimises hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort

  • • The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use

• Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

Why Universal Design is Fundamental in Housing

There is a myriad of examples where alternative spatial design frameworks exist in conjunction with minimum Standards.  Such frameworks include Design Guidelines provided by developers for specific housing types or developments, Specialist Disability Accommodation (SDA) Guidelines for the NDIS – refer to a previous Alchemy Blog post; “How Specialist Disability Accommodation will Shape the Future of Design” or the Livable Housing Australia Design Guidelines.

These guidelines are generally not mandatory and exceed minimum statutory spatial design requirements.  In the case of the SDA, they are required for Enrolment of dwellings in the NDIS.  In other instances, they can be used as a marketing tool by developers to attract potential purchasers of dwellings or to provide more appropriate housing to satisfy a social need of the community.

Joe Manton, Director of The Access Institute, an experienced consultant, educator and collaborator on the NDIS Specialist Disability Accommodation Guidelines has recently commented on minimum standards for accessibility in her writing “Minimum Compliance Means Missed Opportunities and Mediocrity“.  Joe contends that the minimum access standards do not serve all users, whether with a disability or those who may have other accessibility requirements, including prams, strollers, deliveries to premises, shopping trolleys or other needs.

I agree with Joe’s position.  The requirements for spatial allocation in the design of buildings should be determined and influenced by a number of factors, to be assessed and interrogated by the Architect (or building designer), including the proposed use of the building for the Owner and potential future use of the building. 

It is not good enough to design strictly in accordance with the Minimum Standards and certainly not acceptable to cut corners or routinely seek exemptions to minimum Standards.  It is fundamental that Architects design spaces to accommodate all users and reasonable spatial expectations. 

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