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Accessibility Regulations and a Universal
Design Philosophy Inspire the Design Process
Instead of stifling creativity, a climate of access pushes architects to be inventive
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By Barbara Knecht



Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this month’s ARCHITECTURAL RECORD / AIA Continuing Education article.

Learning Objective:
After reading this article, you will be able to:

1. Explain the difference between accessible design and universal design.

2. Describe the benefits of universal design.

3. Discuss examples of universal design in recent architectural projects.

Accessibility is a mandate; universal design is a movement. Accessible, adaptable, and visitable environments are covered in the codes, standards, and regulations. Beginning with the Architectural Barriers Act in 1968 and culminating with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, the federal government has enacted four major laws that require public places and publicly funded projects to provide physical and programmatic accessibility to people with disabilities. Standards that meet the physical requirements of the laws are spelled out in guidelines. Model building codes and local codes have been modified to meet and, in some cases, exceed the federal requirements. Universal design is a worldwide movement that approaches the design of the environment, products, and communications with the widest range of users in mind. It is known elsewhere in the world as design for all, life-span design, and inclusive design. The U.S. origins of its philosophy date back three decades to the disability-rights movement, but the seven governing principles (sidebar, page 147), which call for designed environments that are equitable, flexible, intuitive, perceptible, safe, easy, and accommodating, were crafted in the past decade.

Civil rights is the rationale for accessibility. The accessibility laws focus on people within a narrow range of specific disabilities, such as those who use wheelchairs or have visual or hearing impairments. They ensure access to designated types of buildings based on assumptions about particular barriers in the environment—for example, they stipulate that there must be one level entry into public buildings for someone who uses a wheelchair, and that a person who doesn’t see should have audio signals and braille signs in an elevator.


Payette Associates used the Charles H. Giancarlo Engineering Laboratories at Brown University to create a visual signpost for the entire complex.
Photography: © Jeff Goldberg/ESTO


Universal design comes from incorporating these guiding principles into underlying design thinking. There are no specific goals to reach; there is instead a framework for creating solutions. Universal design asks designers to rethink some fundamental formal architectural concepts, to contemplate environmental equity for all kinds of users, and to consider a variety of ways the environment can be designed or adapted to accommodate people’s changing needs, such as those of the aging or of people who don’t speak the dominant language. Providing an accessible environment often means adding a few special features designated as accessible. Providing a universal environment means creating a space that doesn’t segregate some and prevent others from using it independently, but does benefit many whose needs have not traditionally been considered. The largest cohort that universal design in Europe and America seeks to include are aging baby boomers, who will soon begin to find the world more difficult to navigate. Proponents insist that universal design meets the highest aesthetic standards and contest the stereotype of accessibility that creates places that are segregating, costly, and ugly.



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