Question Of The Week: Utilizing Universal Design?

Are you pursuing universal design for your facilities? What challenges or successes have you found?ADA

Also referred to as “inclusive design” or “design for all”, universal design is a focus on making environments and products more usable, safer and healthier in response to the needs of an increasingly diverse population. And, ADA compliance is often part of this scenario.

The University at Buffalo’s Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA Center), in collaboration with the Global Universal Design Commission (GUDC), has developed the first set of universal design certification standards for commercial buildings, looking to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines as a model.

The first facility to adopt these standards and become certified — the Mary Free Bed YMCA in Grand Rapids, MI — opened its doors to the public in December 2015.

The IDeA Center, which is housed in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, started developing the universal design guidelines in 2009.

Exterior of the new Mary Free Bed YMCA in Grand Rapids, MI. (Photo: Terry Johnston Photography)

“This is a major milestone for the IDeA Center and our partners in the Global Universal Design Commission, who have been working on this effort for more than five years,” said Danise Levine, architect and IDeA Center assistant director. “A lot of resources were devoted to developing the universal design standards, finding an adopter and evaluating the first building.”

The IDeA Center’s universal design standards are comprehensive, offering guidelines for the design process (who should be involved and how), site elements (parking, signage and pedestrian routes), building elements (doors, restrooms, circulation systems) and services and facility management policies.

“These standards were created to provide designers and other stakeholders with a resource that can guide them to go beyond basic accessibility and be more inclusive,” said Levine.
How exactly does universal design help? Here are a few examples:

• Exterior circulation: The site is organized to minimize travel between parking and the building entrance without crossing into vehicular paths while exterior pedestrian routes provide continuous travel throughout the site without changes in level.

• Building elements: Doorways, hallways, and other spaces accommodate a wide range of body sizes and abilities.

• Wayfinding: The Mary Free Bed YMCA uses color schemes, combined with different shapes and hue patterns that are easily identified by people with all types of color vision and under a variety of lighting conditions. The wayfinding system was designed to be consistently recognizable by people of all ages and cultural groups.

From rail to rail, there is 6 feet of clearance in the ramp, one of universal design features at the Mary Free Bed YMCA in Grand Rapids, MI. (Photo: Terry Johnston Photography)

Levine reviewed the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids’ final drawings for the 116,00 0square foot Mary Free Bed facility and offered recommendations on changes that would improve its overall usability, including signage and wayfinding, communication elements and digital technologies —as well as exterior spaces.

“A core value of our YMCA is inclusion,” says Ronald K. Nelson, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids. “Universal design opened our eyes to another dimension of inclusion, of which we are now very proud. It was a huge asset to have an organization such as the IDeA Center that could evaluate our planning and progress, particularly since our project was well underway prior to our being aware of each other’s organization.”

Collaboration between the numerous stakeholders was key to making the Mary Free Bed project successful and, in turn, helping the Y fulfill its mission to create an inclusive facility, Levine said. “It is extremely gratifying and exciting to see all of these efforts come to fruition. The Y, as an early adopter of the standards, should be commended for being a leader in the inclusive design movement, designing and developing an inclusive site for all of their employees and visitors. Visitors to the Y should in turn recognize and appreciate the Y’s commitment to providing a state-of-the-art facility for the entire community,” she said.

“The universal design standards will provide designers and other stakeholders with strategies that they can include in their own projects that create more usable environments. Until now, no such resource existed. Our hope is that more sites will come to incorporate the standards, not only creating more exemplars of universal design, but also providing more inclusive environments that benefit all people,” said Levine.

A universal design certification website is also under development and will be launched by summer 2016. The universal design standards were developed under a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (H133E100002).

Are you pursuing universal design for your facilities? What challenges or successes have you found? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the Comments section below.