Accessibility and Inclusion as a Design Principle

There seems to be an unawareness among architects, of the provisions of the Building Code in relation to accessibility.

While there is an increased focus on accessibility — including the need to comply with state and federal regulations — the integration of the accessibility provision should be seen to enhance the creative process. Design by regulation is not to be encouraged.

As an access consultant with a 40-year background in architecture, I have empathy for the creative process and design delight.

I know how important it is to maintain the integrity of the design, whilst equally having the end-user in mind. Clearly, we all agree that design for equal access is a fundamental human right, and as such is central to the design process. The question is, how we can more effectively integrate accessibility into our architectural design processes, in a way that leads to better outcomes for all users, irrespective of their physical ability.

With this in mind, I’ve tried to distil my experiences at the cross-sections of architecture and accessibility into three core guiding principles — I might even call them rules — that I believe all architects should design by when it comes to accessibility. I genuinely believe that adhering to these principles will put any architect in better stead when it comes to accessibility and the provision of an integrated design.

1. Knowledge is Key.

The first rule may seem obvious, but it’s perhaps the crux of the reason why accessibility often causes concern for architects and firms the world over. Architects are often too overwhelmed with the technical considerations that need to be considered in the design process, that they simply haven’t had the time and/or training to gain the requisite knowledge of all applicable regulations. The most important of these here in Australia include the Australian Standards AS1428, the National Construction Code (NCC), as well as those under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) Including the Disability ( Access to Premises – Buildings) Standard.

Unfortunately, failure to integrate these regulations can be a costly oversight. As noted by the Australian Human Rights Commission, ‘in some cases a failure to comply with even the BCA can result in additional expenditure for retrofitting if final certification is refused or complaints under the DDA are made.’ With this in mind, I urge all architects, young and old, to dedicate some time to familiarize yourself with all of the necessary access codes and regulations. The more precision you can bring to a design brief in terms of accessibility, the more avenues you have for creative execution and the less time spent back peddling. A great place to start, if slightly outdated, is the free resource from the Australian Human Rights Commission, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly — Design and Construction for Access (2008).

2. Embrace Accessibility

The second principle I’d like to suggest is that architects embrace accessibility. In Glasgow, architect Alan Dunlop recently designed a school with walls lined in cork trails, providing tactile cues that guide blind and deaf students and facilitate greater mobility. In the Netherlands, 70f Architecture has designed a sheep stable that allows disabled visitors to have up-close interactions with animals. And in France, Pierre Goutti Karine Louilot Architects have designed a stunning Boarding School for the Deaf that incorporates bamboo and perforated steel to heighten the visual impact of the surroundings. Closer to home the Art Gallery of NSW has incorporated a sculptural ramp into the facade to provide improved accessible access to the Gallery.

My point is that in order to design great work we need to think of accessibility as more than wheelchair ramps and handrails. Think tactile surfaces. Think motion-detection technology. Think novel materials and inverted layouts that make rooms more accessible, and movement both smoother and more engaging. Embracing rather than shying away from accessibility, or treating it as an afterthought, creates exciting new avenues for creative exploration.

Alan Dunlop - Glasgow school with cork tactile walls
Alan Dunlop – Glasgow school with cork tactile walls

Pierre Goutti Karine Louilot Architects - Boarding School for the Deaf
Pierre Goutti Karine Louilot Architects – Boarding School for the Deaf

Art Gallery of NSW sculptural ramp


3. Accessibility and inclusion as a Design Principle

This leads to my third and final point, and the most important of the three.

Depending on whom you learned from, at some point in your early education or career you no doubt had a number of fundamental ‘principles of design’, usually less than ten, laid at your feet. Principles like balance, proximity, alignment, repetition, contrast, space and emphasis.

Though reductive, such principles inform our architectural world and scaffold the concepts and vocabularies that enable our work. My suggestion is that accessibility — structural, substantial, aesthetic, and embodied in space — needs to be thought of as just as fundamental to our work as the dusty principles we learnt decades ago. The deliberative act of embracing accessibility, then, is not just the right thing to do; it entails fundamental attention to good design.

There is, as I’ve suggested, a thin cloud of apprehension surrounding increased regulations regarding accessibility. For my part, I believe — and have often seen — that exceptional architectural design is not only possible within the confines of accessibility regulations, but can work in harmony with the principle of accessibility. It is only by further educating ourselves on the requisite regulations, by embracing accessibility, and further by seeing accessibility as a fundamental principle of good design, that the unawareness around accessibility will begin to clear resulting in more inclusive architectural design.

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