Blog - The beauty of universal design

About a year ago, I attended a universal design conference up in Auckland. At the time I was doing some study around vision impairment and afterwards I wrote a blog about my thoughts on how to consider people’s different needs when designing lighting in public places and spaces.

But reflecting recently on how universal design and accessibility benefits more than those with disabilities, one group that instantly sprang to mind is our aging population.

According to Statistics NZ, by 2032, it is expected that 20–22% of New Zealanders will be aged 65+, compared with 15 percent in 2016, and it’s widely acknowledged that most people will also be working past 65.

So what does this mean in terms of how we are designing our workspaces, businesses and public places? If we even think about it all, we often visualise buildings designed for older people having grab rails or banisters where there are steps, and ramped entrances, but in fact there is so much we could be incorporating into everyday design of new or renovated buildings, which just makes life easier for everyone, not just the ageing population.

As specified in Auckland Council’s Design Manual, “universal design in the context of architecture, space and design refers to buildings, homes and environments that are inherently accessible to older people, people without disabilities and people with disabilities.” In other words, it is good design for everyone.

Areas that we need to be thinking about when designing for the future include:

  • Flat access to at least the main entrance way, and ideally all entry and exit points
  • Making sure that we incorporate the ability for technology to operate appliances and fittings, such as heaters, lights, doors and curtains
  • Having light switches and power points at a height which is easy for people to reach
  • Putting studs into restroom walls so that rails can be safely be put in at a later date
  • Having appliances in the staff room at an easy level to reach, enough space to move around, and positioned close to the dining area
  • Having well lit automated lighting, particularly in entrances and hallways

Lifemark is an organisation which helps designers to ensure that they are creating universally designed houses. And while it’s geared towards residential building rather than workspaces, if you are looking for ideas and inspiration there is useful information on their website.

When looking at the cost of integrating universal design, using the Lifemark standards in a new residential build, in 2016 it was an additional $1700.00 to the total build. In 2019, with increasing availability of features which assist accessibility, the additional cost is thought to be nearer $1000.00.

And although it will obviously vary for a commercial build, depending on the size of your workplace, the cost is comparatively low when considering the benefits, so why wouldn’t you include these features? The result will be a workplace which does not require modifications in the future and which is an easy place for everyone who works or does business with you, to visit. That is the beauty of universal design.