Accessibility Meets Aesthetics

How do you create a building that anyone can easily use regardless of physical ability? Since its passage in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has forced the commercial building industry to confront this important issue. The answer lies in thoughtful design and appropriate products. Early on, there were few choices, so the typical response was to add features such as handicapped entrances and ramps to existing building designs. While these solutions helped facilities comply with the law, they were less than ideal.

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Thankfully, today's designers and manufacturers are moving beyond mere compliance to embrace a new way of looking at buildings -- universal design. The goal of this young, but growing movement is to ensure that buildings are accessible to everyone. Universal design addresses the larger population, is performance-based, takes a more holistic approach than mere compliance, and encourages inclusive, creative solutions that address a range of lifecycles.

It promotes the highest maximum performance in a space without calling attention to its accessibility, and without stigmatizing users. Universal design not only addresses the design of the space or environment, but also the design of products used in that space. Products should be useable by as many people as possible, regardless of age, ability or circumstance to maximize the quality of life and create a space that works for every user.

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The seven principles that guide universal design were authored by a working group of architects, products designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers. Products that follow these principles are appearing everywhere and include: ATMs that give visual, tactile, and audible feedback; scissors that work with the right or the left hand; double-cut car keys that can be inserted either way; and lever handles on doors and faucets. According to these seven key principles, spaces and products should offer:

  1. Equitable use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Simple and intuitive use
  4. Perceptible information
  5. Tolerance for error
  6. Low physical effort
  7. Size and space for approach and use
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In the building industry, wet areas, such as restrooms, have seen great innovation. For instance:

  • Restrooms in most of today's commercial buildings have sensor-operated faucets that not only limit the spread of germs, but that also eliminate the need to turn a valve or grasp a handle.
  • Where hand-operated valves can't be avoided, fixtures feature long lever handles that don't require tight grasping, pinching, or twisting.
  • Shower facilities should have controls that are easily movable and a hose that's at least 60 inches long.
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Universal design products also answer to a higher aesthetic standard than those that aim for mere compliance. They're as much about design as they are about universal access. They make it easier than ever for designers to create spaces that are stylish and functional, and that can be enjoyed equally by all.