10/3/2017 | Posted at 3:14 pm

Design that Works for Everyone

Written by Jennifer McDougall Watt

It is time to move beyond designing to meet only the minimum accessibility code requirements, and begin to consider all abilities and stages in life when we create our built environment. According to the 2010 US Census Bureau, nearly 1 in 5 people have some form of disability, and the number is far greater when you consider people with temporary disabilities, such as an injury. A multitude of disabilities impact different senses to varying degrees, and aging and reduced mobility are not static either. Needs are always evolving, and many people resist using mobility devises or refrain from asking for help. While much of the code focuses on a handful of specific disabilities, it does not provide solutions for everyone. Temporary impairment can also occur during any phase of life, and changes the way we experience our environment. For example, during pregnancy or when strolling around with infants and young children, one quickly appreciates adequate space to move through an aisle or assist another person who needs a helping hand. Situational events, such as assisting a family member or walking alongside someone while in conversation, also require a built environment that supports interaction and equity. All of these situations do not fit easily into a box (the code) or apply to only a fraction of our environment. As designers, we need to move beyond just complying with the codes, and work to create inclusive spaces that account for all human experiences and interactions.

There are numerous examples throughout mixed-use, multifamily housing, and senior living communities where Universal Design principles can benefit everyone, from the residents, visitors, staff, and delivery personnel, to the future reuse of a building.

  • Provide equitable use by creating one accessible entrance to a building. The typical front and center stair with ramp wrapping around the side is inefficient as well. Design circulation paths should allow two people to comfortably walk together with room to pass other people.
  • Create features in the kitchen that exemplify flexible use, such as adjustable shelving, adjustable work surfaces, and a turntable or rotating shelving in the lower cabinets.
  • Create spaces that can easily change use. This includes the selection of location, structural decisions, door opening locations, storage spaces, thoughtful location of plumbing, and future elevator shaft locations.
  • Design clear directional signage and graphics to improve wayfinding. This benefits all users, regardless of age, ability, and/or language.
  • Reduce tolerance for error and create safer environments for everyone through thoughtful selection of materials and choices of textures, colors, and contrast.

The principles of Universal Design create a blueprint for designers to be intentional and thoughtful about design at all scales. The principles do not have “minimum” and “maximum” dimensions (how refreshing, right?) Instead, they are goals. An industry that embraces goals, and not limitations, is technology. By having a very simple goal of ‘being user-friendly’, universal design principles are put into action very easily. Technology surrounds us and provides great examples of how innovative thinking can create tools that require little to no physical effort, or through simple motions or sounds can have a powerful effect on the quality of life for an individual with a severe disability. Some of these technological advances grew out of inventions to help people overcome certain disabilities, and not surprisingly – everyone loves it! The obvious are voice-to-text and voice activation technology on our phones, computers, music systems, and in-home automation. So many more opportunities for community involvement and employment open up when someone with limited or no use of their hands can now autonomously communicate and interact with others. Even more transformative are advances in nanotechnology, regenerative medicine, and artificial organs and limbs that will allow those with both lifelong and temporary changes in their health and abilities to live more independently.

Technology is advancing at an exponential rate. If technology can change to benefit users at a speed for which new annual releases have an influence that betters our lives, then as designers we owe it to the people we design for to have the same approach and rigor for creating the built environment. We do not have the luxury or the resources to upgrade or replace the built environment when the “next best” thing comes along. We build for longevity and sustainability – with conservation of diminishing resources in mind. Therefore everything we do has to holistically be an improvement over the status quo. We must show that our industry of creating, renovating, rebuilding, and reimagining the built environment is thinking about the needs of every person, every ability, and every phase of life.


Jennifer McDougall Watt is an architect at GGLO in Seattle Washington.  She has more than twenty years of experience in a variety of mixed use and housing markets, with a focus in affordable housing, senior living, and housing for special needs populations.  Her role at GGLO includes serving as an accessibility and universal design specialist and resource for the office.  While creating communities at all scales, she developed a passion and understanding of how thoughtfully designed, sustainable environments can improve people’s lives and benefit the community as a whole. Her experience includes assisted living, memory care, formerly homeless families and teens, low-income individuals of all ages, affordable and workforce housing, and accessible and universally designed housing.