Blog - Universal design, spaces that work for everybody

Old stone steps making access to a business premises difficult for disabled or elderly peopleI have just returned from a trip to the UK to visit my 92 year old dad, who still lives on his own.

Just before heading away I attended the inaugural Universal Design Conference, held up in Auckland and largely sponsored by the Auckland Council, (who are on a mission to make theirs the most liveable city on the world). The event was also run here in Christchurch later that week by the Christchurch City Council, but by that time, I had already landed in England.

“So what” you may ask, “is Universal Design?” Well, it’s a design concept and way of thinking that aims to create environments, products, and systems that can be used by as many people as possible. In other words, it makes things more accessible, safer and convenient for everyone – think “easy to open doors into shops, ramped access instead of steps, doors that are wide enough to get through easily if you are using crutches or in a wheelchair, or larger handled kitchen tools such as the OXO range”.

Although I was unable to get there, one of our WorkSpace IQ team did go along to the Christchurch Universal Design event, and felt that one of the most inspiring speakers was Anthony Gough, who plans to make his new development, The Terrace, a totally accessible place for anyone. Not only is he planning to incorporate universal design on the ground floor in all the bars and cafes, but also in the upstairs offices which he is creating, with lifts to the upper floor and accessibility between offices on this level. Another Christchurch delegate commented that “Anthony’s ambition for an environment that is enjoyable and accessible for everyone is an inspiration for the region, and for other players in the building and design sector. Great stuff.”

Returning to Sussex once more for a moment, my father was being faced with his own challenges. The dental practice/dentist he uses has recently relocated and is now in a lovely old Georgian building, up a flight of 13 steep stairs with a bend at the top and no rail to hold onto. Even though he has an alternative option (which is to change dentists to the one who works downstairs) he would still have to negotiate the three external steps which are not only high, but also worn from 250 years of use. Although to be fair to the practice, universal design certainly didn’t come into the picture when this building was first designed, and in truth, probably not many people had their own teeth after the age of 40 back then either!

Funny observations aside, given that we are an aging population here in NZ too, thinking about universal design makes sense. As revealed at the conference, the number of people aged over 65 in New Zealand is projected to increase from 0.5 million (2205) to 1.33 million (2051).

What makes even more sense (and which became very apparent at the conference) is that including universal design in your plans right at the beginning of the process costs -5 to 5% of the total cost; having to adapt buildings after completion costs considerably more.

So, the key emphasis of this conference was to make people, and particularly designers, more aware of including universal design in initial design plans.

The experts in the field are telling us that cost should not be a factor in determining how well designed our buildings are in the central city, it’s being well informed about what is needed to make a building appealing and accessible for everyone.

So, here, right now in Christchurch, we have the perfect opportunity to get it right, right from the start with our building designs. As a recent team of senior IBM executives visiting Christchurch as part of their Smarter Cities initiative pointed out in their ‘Once Opportunity‘ video, on the ground here we have an incredibly rare opportunity to get it right and build with a clean sheet of paper. Let’s hope there are enough people prepared not only to watch and/or listen, but also to act. You know, it really does make sense.

If you’re interested in planning an inclusive design but are unsure how to go about it, help is at hand through a number of organisations who can come in and assess plans for both residential and commercial buildings, and advise you on various features to include depending on the use of your building. If you prefer to contact me in the first instance, I will be happy to point you in the direction of someone who can help.