Building plans; Conversing with ASL; Woman using wheelchair nears moving sidewalk; Children using computer at Community Centre; Person reading Braille

What is holding back progress in creating accessible buildings?

by Thea Kurdi

Accessibility Specialist of the Built Environment. (Canada)

Creating accessible built environments – that are actually accessible – is almost as much of a challenge today as it was years ago when I started as an accessibility specialist for the built environment. Certainly there have been breakthroughs in our society’s understanding of what accessibility means, some great research indicating what dimensional requirements are actually needed for people using assistive equipment[1], and even movement at the government level in the form of new legislation and changes to building codes. Despite all these positive changes, the new building projects that I review for accessibility during the design phase continue to have many of the same issues that I saw at the beginning of my career. Certainly some problems persist due to attitudinal bias, and many others are due to insufficient training in schools of architecture about accessible and universal design. Yet I recognized those couldn’t be the only reasons.

This past year I set out to determine if I could discover what is hindering our progress and find the cause, or causes, of so many of the common mistakes. It seemed that the issues must be occurring before the design phase where accessibility specialists do most of our consulting. Speaking to clients seemed the best place to start. These conversations quickly revealed that the biggest obstacles were items that had a space requirement in conflict with the spatial allowances listed in architectural programming, an earlier step in the process for creating a building. Following up on this information, I spoke to a few contacts at a well-respected architectural programming firm. It was surprising to learn that there is no one typical process for establishing room space requirements.

Bubble-Diagram showing Architectural Programming by-Tiffanni Reidy, Interior Designer

Image used by permission with thanks. Image by Tiffanni Reidy, Interior Designer

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) defines architectural programming as, “[the] thorough and systematic evaluation of the interrelated values, goals, facts, and needs of a client’s organization, facility users, and the surrounding community.” In summary, an architectural program identifies and prioritizes client and user values, determines project goals, and also identifies project constraints and opportunities[²].

Who is responsible for creating space requirements? Typically this work is undertaken by building owners and property developers who often do not have the training, awareness of the need for, or knowledge about accessibility and the principles of universal design. For larger corporations and government projects, a great deal of time is spent on space planning during early building stages, as Master Planning or Feasibility Studies. Smaller buildings with smaller budgets, space planning and programming is frequently done by the architect prior to the design phase.

The size of a building is based on the total of the rooms and spaces which are required for the building’s use. Determining the size of each space starts with deciding how many people the space is to accommodate, choosing the equipment and furniture required, and then designing a typical room layout which establishes the amount of physical space or square footage required. When all room types have been designed and calculated, the programming stage determines the size of the future building by adding up how many of each room is desired with the additional space need for circulation, which include corridors, stair cases, and elevators, etc.

architectectural drawing of office space

If accessibility requirements are included in space planning, they typically only meet the basic requirements of the current building code. By the time the building gets to the design phase a year or two later, the accessibility provisions are usually out of date or insufficient because the building codes they were based on have changed or the items included to be accessible were not extensive enough to meet the building owners and stakeholders accessibility needs.

How could accessibility in space allowances be missed so often? There are many reasons, but I will address what I consider to be the two most important. First, as indicated by the nature of the problem, accessibility specialists are not consulted during the space planning or programming phases. Second, and just as important, only building code requirements are considered instead of future population demographics, which means the full range of functional abilities and needs are not considered.

Globally, there are over 1 billion persons with disabilities. Using Canada as a ‘typical’ developed country, Statistics Canada indicates that 14% of the Canadian population are people with disabilities, a percentage that we are told will increase to 25% by 2025. By the summer of 2014 in Canada, there were already more older persons (aged 65+) than children under the age of 15[3]. We know older persons are more likely that younger people to not only live with one type of disability, but typically two or three as they continue to age[4]. Experts in health also tell us that we can expect that by 2025, approximately 25% of our population will be overweight and obese – which means they will have additional spatial and dimensional requirements beyond what codes currently accommodate[5]. According to the Vision Council of America, approximately 75% of adults use some sort of vision correction[6].

In addition, approximately 70% of disabilities are ‘invisible’ which means that people with some disabilities do not need to use assistive equipment that distinguishes them from the able-bodied[7]. Statistics are also not collected for the percentage of the population that has a temporary disability due to a change in health, accidents and illness.

Making all spaces in our buildings accessible is not just a human right, but supported by our demographics. Our statistical information does not clearly support this conclusion because of how the data is collected. The number of people with disabilities is not based on an objective or knowledgeable source, like from our doctors, but instead only relies on each of us to self-identify as having a disability which of course will be inaccurate. The number of people who would benefit from accessible design is clearly not known and appears to be far greater than we design for.

By ignoring or not accounting for the space needs of persons with disabilities and older persons as a part of the population of people who use all of the spaces in our structures at the beginning of the building process, it is clear why during the design phase architects often feel that making the built environment accessible is difficult, expensive, and frustrating. When accessibility spatial requirements are addressed so late in the process, architects and building owners are often forced to make difficult choices about where this space can be taken from. Resentment and hostility is not an uncommon reaction, and frustration often leads to blaming people with disabilities or claims that these space needs are ridiculous and unjustified.

If we want to stop building discrimination into our built environment and finally make significant progress for accessibility, the process for creating buildings needs to start including accessibility requirements from the very beginning. When space allowances are allocated and included during the programming phase, the problems and limitations that currently obstruct accessibility in the design phase will be gone and the improvements in accessibility for all types of buildings will be immediate.









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