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Universal Design: architecture that transcends boundaries

Universal Design: architecture that transcends boundaries

Universal design is architectural design that attempts to make buildings and environments as inclusive as possible.

10 minutes
23 November 2020

Universal design is architectural design that takes everyone into account and attempts to make buildings and environments as inclusive as possible. Whether you use a seeing-eye dog or wheelchair, have to ask the way in sign language or are dragging along a buggy or folding bike, your destination has to be reachable and accessible. KU Leuven architect Marc Dujardin is one of the pioneers of universal design in Belgium.

Most of us might just sigh when it turns out a four-story building has no lift, or when the front door is so heavy that it requires more strength than our gym subscription can provide, when poor acoustics transform conversations into cacophonies or when we have to squint to read the tiny letters on signs.

For people with a physical, visual, auditive, or other disability, the situation is very different. For them, these irritating but apparently minor obstacles can form insurmountable hindrances. Universal design seeks to remove these hindrances. Professor of Architecture Marc Dujardin describes it first and foremost as a ‘design attitude’. “The primary goal of universal design is to make buildings, products, or environments accessible and easy to use for everybody, without emphasizing it too strongly,” he says. “It has to be ‘conspicuously inconspicuous’.”

Dropped curb

Universal design emerged in the US in the 1960s to address the needs of disabled war veterans, Dujardin says. It was around that time that you started seeing the ‘dropped curb’ on streets. That is a good example of universal design because it transcends the needs of one specific group and enhances accessibility for everyone. “A ‘dropped curb’ is not only useful for wheelchair users, who would otherwise find it difficult to get on and off the curb, but it also helps people with pushchairs or skaters,” Dujardin says. “Moreover, they have become completely normal. People don’t even notice them anymore.”

From the moment that you draw your first line on paper, as an architect you are either introducing or removing obstacles, Dujardin says. “And these obstacles aren’t only a problem for people with disabilities. Someone might also be ‘situationally disabled’. Think, for example, of a father or mother with a double pushchair that doesn’t fit into a lift because it is too wide or is difficult to manoeuvre because of little steps.”

Often it is a question of little, easily integrable things. “Wheelchair users, for example, are helped by entranceways with a slope rather than steps, lowered reception desks, or lift buttons that are not vertical but horizontal. On the other hand, the visually impaired can be helped with signage in braille or toilets with contrasting colours because the visually impaired have difficulty finding doors in spaces that have completely uniform colours…”

In addition to physical thresholds, there are of course also mental boundaries. “Many theatres, for example, have entranceways with stairs, as a result of which wheelchair users have to use a separate entrance, often a service entrance. The wheelchair user is thus separated from their group and immediately feels targeted. In some auditoria, wheelchair users also have to sit all alone in front of the front row in the auditorium because there is no space beside the normal chairs. That is very stigmatizing, of course. And it could be worse: I once heard a conductor on a train say that there was a delay because somebody in a wheelchair had to get off…”


Accidentally accessible

There are some good examples of universal design in Belgium – think of the Havenhuis in Antwerp, the ‘De Krook’ library in Ghent, and the Ghelamco Arena, which was built in consultation with accessibility consultants – but the situation is far more advanced abroad, Dujardin says.

“Especially in Scandinavian countries, it is a major priority. Take the underground system in Copenhagen, for example. On the platforms, there are warning bumps for the visually impaired and glass walls so that nobody can fall onto the tracks. When the train arrives, doors open in the walls, aligned with the doors of the train. Separate larger carriages are provided for wheelchair users or people with bicycles, and they are easily recognizable because they are a different colour.”

Buildings sometimes become more inclusive by accident, Dujardin says. “In the foyer of the concert hall in Bruges, there is a ceiling with two different heights. The architects primarily did this for the sake of aesthetics and spaciousness, but it also has advantages for blind and visually impaired visitors. When we walk through a space, we remember images so that we can find our way back more easily. Blind people cannot do that: their awareness of their surroundings is based on sound and acoustics. So because the acoustics at the concert hall are different in the two parts of the foyer, they know where the auditorium and the lifts are. I think it is important to learn from that as an architect, and incorporate that insight into your subsequent designs.”

Applying universal design to new builds is one thing, but how do you make historic buildings accessible? “That is much harder, of course, but not impossible,” Dujardin says. “The Napoleon Fort in Ostend, for example, has been made as accessible as possible for wheelchairs or pushchairs – which is by no means obvious when you consider that the fort was designed to keep people out (laughs). The Louvre is another fine example. The pyramid in the courtyard, which functions as the main entrance, not only has a majestic winding staircase, but also a lift with a cage that comes up to your waist. Whether you take the stairs or the lift, you have the same architectonic experience of the space. It is ingeniously conceived, beautiful, and a way to reduce stigma.”

Experts by experience

Dujardin has been working with universal design for about three decades. His first experience with the need for accessibility came while he was studying architecture, though not during his classes. “One of my fellow students was paralyzed in a motorbike accident,” he says. “So along with some other students, we ensured that a disabled parking space would be made available in front of the school and that the entrance was made wheelchair accessible. I also have an otherwise-abled son, and he also stoked and deepened my interest in universal design. He is my great source of inspiration, the reason why I do what I do.”

During design workshops, Professor Dujardin tries to raise his students’ awareness of the use of universal design, and he regularly involves experts by experience. “People with disabilities who supervise the students with me,” he says. “The practical knowledge and insights that these people provide during the workshops are of incalculable value. For example, a blind person might indicate the importance of acoustics or a wheelchair user might explain how a slope can make a world of difference for everybody. It makes universal design comprehensible for students. Working with these experts by experience changes their mindset and helps them to understand why inclusive design is so important.”

I have an otherwise-abled son, and he also stoked and deepened my interest in universal design. He is my great source of inspiration, the reason why I do what I do.

Service learning

Dujardin has spent years developing a ‘tactile library with speech technology’, which provides an overview of remarkable Belgian buildings and the design stories behind them for people with disabilities. These UDL boxes (Universal Design for Learning Tools) can also be used as educational instruments for students with a disability who want to study architecture.

“When students are looking for inspiration, they go to the library and look at books of photographs of and information about famous architecture designs. But this is not possible for the visually impaired, for example. A UDL box of a particular building does make that possible. These boxes consist of a number of tactile plaquettes with information about the building, both in ordinary writing and in braille, a floor plan or cross-section, and information from the architect about the design. Each plaquette has a magnetic sticker that you can scan with your smartphone to play audio information…”

“Thanks to these tools, the visually impaired, who cannot currently study architecture, would be able to learn about architecture,” Dujardin says. “These students don’t necessarily have to become architects themselves, just like some people who study medicine don’t become doctors. But still, these students can be a source of inspiration to broaden, deepen and especially humanize perspectives on architecture creatively, based on education.”

The box also contains a film in which the accessibility of the building in question is evaluated by the students. “When you ask accessibility consultants to test this, you receive a report with a lot of technical information: this door should be so many centimetres wider, these walls are the wrong colour, this obstacle should be removed from the passageway… We do the same thing in the films, but it is much easier to identify with the person with a disability.”

“For example, the students film the entrance to a building from the perspective of someone in a wheelchair, follow a blind person who runs into numerous obstacles, or simulate disabilities themselves. This is a way to capture something of the occasionally stigmatizing effect of architecture. It is, moreover, a good example of ‘service learning’, which the university is currently investing in. I hope that the Vice-Rector for Diversity and Student Affairs will consider using the prototypes of the UDL box in her work to make the university more inclusive.”

Sensory model

Another example of universal design is to be found at the ‘De Krook’ municipal library in Ghent. It features a sensory model for which Dujardin designed the prototype, commissioned by the City of Ghent, to give people with a visual, motor, or other disability the opportunity to experience the city from different perspectives.

“It is a spin-off project of my international design workshops,” he says. “This sensory model is a multi-sensorial object that provides information about the building plans of the City of Ghent, its notable buildings, or the most accessible tourist routes. Using various senses, you can ask for information about the city. 3D models of the four towers of Ghent were made so that blind people could touch them. When you press on a building, it lights up, and you get information about it. You can hear the explanation via headphones, so that someone with a visual impairment can hear it, and at the same time, you see somebody telling the story in sign language, for deaf people.”

Professor Dujardin (left) beside the sensory model in De Krook.
Professor Dujardin (left) beside the sensory model in De Krook.

Dujardin is also involved in the development of an app for universal design. “A programme on a computer or smartphone that architecture students can access when they make their designs,” he explains. “It is actually intended as a way to document the knowledge of experts by experience and to render it schematically. If students are working on the design of a foyer, for example, they can check the app to see the which obstacles or sensitivities they should take into account if they want to make the building accessible.”

Dujardin hopes that universal design will one day become the standard for good architectural design. “It should become the rule rather than the exception,” he concludes. “Too many architects are still only interested in aesthetics and consider ‘accessibility’ to be incidental, while it is perfectly possible to design a universal environment that is also beautiful, if you take it into account from the very beginning. It is a win-win situation.”

Universal Design requires extensive interdisciplinarity in every respect. Dujardin’s years-long collaboration with Professor of Cultural Anthropology Patrick Devlieger in the context of their joint research theme ‘Enabling Disability Studies & Designing for Multi-Sensoriality’, is being repeated in the form of a new interfaculty elective – Design Anthropology. Students of architecture and anthropology join forces synergistically to research current themes around inclusion in theoretically well-founded and creative ways, searching for cultural-spatial solutions that they would never be able to identify without that interaction.

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