New program codifies how to make spaces support all users
BY RACHEL TEAMAN
The main gallery of the MuseumLab in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh features generously spaced corridors and doorways, as well as sound absorption panels. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF DANISE LEVINE, UNIVERSITY AT BUFFALO
Universal design can create safer, healthier, more supportive facilities for those who use them, regardless of one’s age or ability. The design philosophy dates back to the 1990s, when architects sought to go beyond obtrusive and alienating “handicap accessible” design and building practices. But detailed guidelines have been lacking. Until now. The Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA Center) at the University of Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning hopes to push universal design into standard practice with a new research-backed assessment and certification program. Developed with funding from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, the program walks users through the process, from planning the project through building design to post-occupancy.
Known as innovative solutions for Universal Design, or isUD, the program features more than 500 illustrated design solutions and best practices developed by the IDEA Center over nearly 40 years. The program guides clients through a menu of design strategies and tracks progress toward universal design goals through an automated scoring system. Buildings that earn sufficient credits from identified design options are eligible for isUD Certification in Universal Design.
“This is the first recognition program to provide a comprehensive approach to user-centered design, including attention to usability, wellness, and social relations,” says Edward Steinfeld, founding director of the IDEA Center. “isUD empowers the full range of stakeholders—from business owners and facility managers to real estate developers to architects and designers—to integrate socially responsible design in their buildings. It also brings needed visibility to a growing movement in design that improves environments for everyone.”
Lessons from first test case
The gaps between workstations in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh MuseumLab are larger to better accommodate guests.
Launched after a multiyear pilot, the program has been embraced by early adopters, including Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, and local governments. Its current scope covers public and commercial buildings including retail. Though no retail projects have yet applied for certification, IDEA Center officials believe using isUD for retail projects would enhance the shopping experience.
isUD’s first test case started in 2017, when the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh came to the IDEA Center for help on its “MuseumLab.” The expansion project involved the renovation and adaptive reuse of a 129-year-old building to create the country’s largest cultural campus for kids. Chris Cieslak, director of facilities for the Children’s Museum, says the aspiration was to ingrain the project with the values of inclusion. “We wanted the rigor of third-party certification and a standard by which we could be evaluated,” she says.
Danise Levine, an architect and assistant director of the IDEA Center, oversaw the certification process for MuseumLab, which opened in April as the first isUD-certified building. After two years of consultation that included a regular exchange of construction drawings, design documents, and product specifications, Levine says the project stands as a beacon for innovation in universal design.
“Instead of being discouraged by limitations of the existing building, the MuseumLab team viewed it as an opportunity to preserve its historic integrity and incorporate modern building concepts including universal design,” she says.
Many of the design solutions are subtle—the ideal in universal design. Elevators and bathrooms offer 360-degree turning radiuses for large wheelchairs. Lobbies and hallways offer generous circulation paths that can accommodate family groupings and strollers. Illuminated room signs are easy for all to see. Cleverly mounted at turns in the wall, directional signage is in colors that contrast with the brick walls.
“It might be hard to get excited about corridors that allow two wheelchairs to pass, but consider the perspective of the wheelchair user or the caregiver pushing the wheelchair,” says Cieslak.
In line with the universal design goal of social integration, all-gender restrooms offer an adult changing table and space to accommodate companions. They are also dispersed throughout the building rather than being isolated in a designated area.
Cieslak says she and her team came out of the process with an entirely new awareness of and facility with the tools of universal design. So much so that they came up with solutions on their own that went above and beyond the scope of isUD.
“We noticed that the automatic toilet flush systems and high-powered hand dryers could be distressing to visitors with autism or sensory challenges. So we got manual flush valves and quieter dryers. No one noticed, but it was deliberate,” she says.
Wayfinding intuitively wraps around the corners inside the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.
Social responsibility and beyond
Beyond its social responsibility and aesthetic appeal, universal design is good for the bottom line. Research, including studies by the IDEA Center, has shown it increases employee productivity, morale, and visitor satisfaction. Its safety measures reduce liability.
Consumer products giant Procter & Gamble recently applied the standards to its overall facility inclusion policies, which cover the company’s buildings across the U.S. “The IDEA Center has changed the way my company thinks about universal design. Using the isUD standards has redefined our facility inclusion efforts,” says Greg Patterson, the company’s facilities universal design leader.
PricewaterhouseCoopers just completed the first phase of isUD for two office buildings, and in Western New York, Uniland Development Co. is building the country’s first isUD-certified hotel in the Town of Amherst. The Hampton by Hilton project is part of the Northtown Center and Audubon Recreation Complex, which has emerged as a destination for USA Sled Hockey tournaments and other sports for people with disabilities.
Uniland’s senior real estate development manager, Kellena Kane, says the 107-room hotel, set to open in 2020, builds on the site’s unique tourism potential. “We saw this as a niche of the market, an opportunity to set the Northtown Center apart as a sports and recreation destination for all.”
The best examples of universal design solutions are subtle and integrative, like this wayfinding that doubles as art at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. MURAL: MAUREEN WALSH
The company’s design team has worked closely with the IDEA Center to balance isUD requirements with the limitations of the site and franchisor approval. For instance, the hotel is constrained by the size of the site, and has little room to expand floorplates. That posed a challenge for achieving isUD clearances for bathrooms, which go beyond ADA requirements. “That can get costly to the financials of a project if you’re eliminating too many standard-sized rooms to meet those requirements,” says Kane. “We had to be creative to maximize the site while still meeting the required dimensions.”
Other solutions combine clarity and elegance. Colored accent carpet will signal hotel room doorways, and themed art will visually delineate hotel floors. “We want to create a building that is easy for everyone to navigate and where the changes are subtle and intuitive,” says Mary Hazlett, Uniland’s lead architectural interior designer for the project.
Now the company is incorporating universal design into other projects in its portfolio, according to Hazlett. “We will take this knowledge and incorporate it into as many of our buildings as possible,” she says.
Rachel Teaman is assistant dean for communications at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning.