Universal Design – Equal Spaces and Places


Universal Design – the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Design that goes a step beyond “barrier-free” design or “accessible design” from the past.  

The Best Universal Design is Made in Forethought  

If you’re still in the planning and sketching stages, let us be among the first to tell you that the best universal design is that which is part of forethought. But if your walls are already up, or your current library, higher education, or senior living space needs accessibility facelifts, we have some suggestions on ways to pivot towards universal design that don’t simply satisfy your ADA requirements but will also satisfy those who use your building.  

Seamless Mobility with a People-Centered Approach  

Buildings would not be complete without the people who use them and care for them. When discussing design that is meant for everybody, it’s important to treat and talk about every ‘body’ as worthy of respect and equality.  

When designing for persons with disabilities, one should refer to the person before the disability and shouldn’t separate the design based on “the haves and the have nots.” Ronald L. Mace, a member of the American Institute of Architects, and the one who coined the term universal design, said “disability is not a special condition of the very few.” After 10 years of research, the World Health Organization issued the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF), a framework for describing and measuring health and disability. The findings shared that anyone could experience a shift in their health or functionality without warning and ultimately experience a degree of disability. Downplaying universal design as something only seen for mobility’s sake or only meant for people whose disability can be seen on the outside can severely limit the imaginative possibilities and inclusive experiences to be had within your building.  

Museums are a perfect example of universal design aiding in non-mobile experiences. The recognizable “Smithsonian Institute” demonstrates this well within its varying museum exhibits and sites. Tactile elements are made available throughout many of their museums as well as maps and directions printed in braille. Bathrooms are located in abundance throughout the museum, and all come with a wheelchair-accessible stall as well as a family/companion care restroom. For more interactive exhibits the Smithsonian provides real-time captioning, listening devices, audio description, or even an on-site sign language interpreter by request.  

According to Rick Bell, FAIA, executive director of design and construction excellence for the city of New York’s Department of Design and Construction, universal design should be “… done so seamlessly that people who are not in a wheelchair, using a walker, or pushing a stroller don’t even realize that [universal design] was the goal.”  

Involving persons with disabilities, or those who study disabilities, within your research and planning should also be utilized. In the development of the Yanaguana Garden, an outdoor children’s playground named after the Payaya Indian Village that is now known more commonly as San Antonio, a cognitive development specialist was consulted. The specialist studied the way that children play and assisted the design team in making their choices based on this psychological background to make the space inviting to any age group.  

Universal Design Today  

There are great examples of universal design around the world as well as close to home. Maybe you’ve even been to some of these locations. 

universal design

Photo Courtesy PWP Landscape Architecture. 

Exterior Universal Design at the 9/11 Memorial Site 

The 9/11 memorial demonstrates exterior universal design well. All public spaces of the site are accessible, including their cafe, auditorium, and classrooms. Even the parapets of the grounds have been designed so that a seated person or shorter person has the same viewing experience as someone seeing the view from a higher vantage point.  

Photo from Arkos Design  

Universal Design within Higher Education at the University of Notre Dame Morrissey Hall 

For this selective renovation with the University of Notre Dame’s Morrissey Hall, Arkos Design implemented a subtle winding ramp for easier move-in for students and access to the raised entry. We took extra care to make the style of the ramp work more seamlessly with the building as it existed currently. The result was a winding sidewalk that escalates but doesn’t look like a ramp at first glance.  

Aesthetically Appealing Additions at Holy Cross Village Shaughnessy Therapy Addition 

Photo from Arkos Design  

Sometimes achieving mobility is the purpose of the space, as with the new physical therapy courtyard at Holy Cross Village. Rather than having a utilitarian, one-dimensional feel, this active therapy space is also a beautiful garden with seating for all residents to enjoy.  It provides access to the pathway system. The therapy work elements such as a ramp, curbing, lawn, different paving textures, are integrated into the space and become part of the environment of the courtyard itself to provide an attractive space with multiple uses with universal access.   

Your checklist for Great Universal Design 

Universal design can be as simple as thinking about how to include left-handed persons in an experience and as complex as thinking about how someone in a wheelchair might read a piece of text on a wall while sitting versus someone reading it standing next to them. Eliminate unnecessary complexity but do think outside the box. Below we share the best principles of Universal Design from The Center for Universal Design with you as you design your next project or consider renovating an existing one.  

Principle 1: Equitable Use 

The design is useful and marketable to persons with diverse abilities. 

Principle 2: Flexibility in Use 

The design is accommodating to a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. 

Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive to Use 

The design is easy to understand and intuitive to use 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 despite ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.  

Principle 5: Tolerance for Error 

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental unintended actions.  

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort 

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

Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use  

Appropriate size and space are provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of body size, posture, or mobility.  

Universal Design at the Heart 

With universal design, “People get hung up on the numbers game. They obsess on 4.9 percent versus five percent. So, I try to put aside the numbers and present universal design as a concept.” Michael Muehe, ADA coordinator for the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and executive director of the Cambridge Commission for Persons with Disabilities explains. Even when you can’t start from scratch, starting at all is a step in the right direction, and gathering communal and financial support and awareness can aid you in the change you wish to make. Cambridge Massachusetts currently supports a “Storefront Improvement Program ” that provides technical and financial help to commercial property owners or tenants who wish to restore exteriors, which in turn, enhance not only their space but the town as a whole. It is an exciting time to be part of architectural design, change, and innovation – with universal design at the heart of our decisions the opportunity to design a space of equal opportunity truly does exist for all.