Universal Design: Keeping Life Accessible

by Wolf Saar, Director of Practice for VIA Architecture

The other day, I was going through my normal weekend routine of picking things up, and as I was making my way downstairs with my arms full of laundry and various other items, I noticed I hadn’t hung up a shirt that was laying on the bed. Instead of putting the stuff down, or getting to it later, I decided to try and hang up the shirt with my free hand.

Like an acrobat I repeatedly tried (ultimately unsuccessfully) to place the shirt on the hanger without the hanger swinging away. I finally dropped my pile of stuff and hung it up properly. Then I started thinking: what would I have done if my arm was in a sling? What if I had suffered a stroke and lost the use of my arm? As an architect and designer, what could I do to remedy that type of situation? This is a great example of what the aim of Universal Design really is: to make all things accessible and able to be manipulated, regardless of ability.

Less ridiculous than my Saturday morning act is what my dad faces every day as an 89 year old experiencing the progressive diminishment of his abilities due to Parkinsons Disease. He currently lives in a 35 year old Burnaby, BC high rise condo with my mother; narrow hallways that hinder his passage with a walker, a standard tub that he cannot negotiate without complete assistance and doors with knobs that are difficult to turn. And then there’s the toilet which, because he basically falls onto it, we fear will ultimately become irreparably dislodged from its mounting.

Thankfully, at 85, mom is relatively fit and can provide the care and assistance he needs so he rarely has to deal directly with the barriers that are designed into the space he inhabits. But this condo creates difficulties even for her; until I added a second one, the door peephole was mounted at “standard” height and, being short, she couldn’t actually use it.

I can excuse a 35 year old design on the basis that we were not as sensitized to these issues back then. But, as a 51 year old who can now visualize a future of “aging in place” for myself, I am still amazed at the way we often take the expeditious approach to the design of the places we live in.

As an architect with a passion for designing spaces for elders, I make it a point to look at the way senior housing is designed and am repeatedly disappointed in the number of “independent” living facilities I’ve seen that comply with ADA but don’t take the next step to design universally. Combo microwave/kitchen hoods positioned up high above a stove are my pet peeve because they're hard to reach and potentially a burn hazard. It’s also evident in elements such as ranges without front controls, dishwashers that aren’t raised so the resident doesn’t have to stoop down and standard bathtubs you have to climb over the edge of to get into.

Several years ago, I went to a presentation by Valerie Fletcher, Executive Director of the Institute for Human Centered Design in Boston. The Institute is an international non-governmental educational organization committed to advancing the role of design in expanding opportunity and enhancing experience for people of all ages and abilities through excellence in design. That talk was a turning point for me because it clearly showed me how I could influence design in a very real way and contribute in a positively to the experience of aging. 
Valerie introduced the notion that, besides accessibility, Universal Design advances “Social Sustainability.”

When we discuss sustainable design, we consider three broad facets: environmental, financial and social. In considering the concept of “Aging in Place” and the social aspects of Universal Design, the goal of independence can be expanded to be “Aging in Community” by promoting the design of accessible and maneuverable environments in the public realm. Universal Design promotes socialization of seniors as contributing members of society by breaking down barriers while placing less of a burden on social services. There is nothing “greener” than being able to continue to live in your own home or community.

Despite the challenges that their living unit presents, my parents do live independently and, in a broad way their location next to a Skytrain Station and a few blocks from their primary doctor, dentist, grocery store and a full-service mall serves them well. Basic needs in the public realm are met, such as curb ramps and adequate lighting but being next to a large shopping center means that, in this case, the car is still king and navigating their neighborhood is both daunting and a bit dangerous due to discontinuous pedestrian ways and drivers that seemingly ignore them. More and more, I see my parents retreat into the condo and limit their forays outside.

There are a number of excellent resources available to designers and the public. In the Seattle area, the Northwest Universal Design Council was formed in an effort to help advance Universal Design thinking in the Puget Sound region. This organization is exceptional in that it brings together people concerned with providing universally accessible environments and advancing the mission of an enlightened approach at all levels of design. This is an energetic and steadily growing group consisting of members of the public, government officials, architects, designers, students and builders with a common goal: to advance the design of “Environments for All.”

As another valuable resource, Aging and Disability Services of King County provides a particularly good clearing house of Universal Design links and resources. In the Lower Mainland, check out Citizens for Accessible Neighborhoods’ website at http://www.canbc.org/.

And, bringing it back to how to hang a shirt with one hand? Maybe give up on the hanger and look at that old alternative: the coat hook.