Inclusive Design: Architects as Facilitators for Agency
As human beings, we are wired to participate in our communities, so we can have a sense of belonging. Inclusion deals with this sense of participation, collaboration, empathy and diversity while inclusive design is the design of a product, service or space that is universally accessible without adaptation of any user.
Buildings and cities play a major role in how communities interact and often influence how inclusive or exclusive a space or urban area can be. Architects have the opportunity, and the responsibility to be advocates for inclusion. As architects, we are the agents for agency – advocates for all known and unknown users with wide-ranging abilities in the spaces we design. The challenge is how do architects gain the knowledge to create environments for all capabilities.
Architects have tools to achieve inclusivity in our work; however, we also need to educate ourselves and ask for help to understand specific needs. Inclusive design is the process by which we can gain insight beyond our own capabilities and perceptions. It is important because it not only deals with physical and mental disabilities and abilities but also racial, cultural and socio-economic identities and circumstances. Many of the tools we employ focus on providing voice for self-advocacy. Honestly, within our current times of self-distancing from COVID-19, we are working ever more diligently to find ways to employ technology to deeply engage our stakeholders.
The seed of inclusive design is empathy, seeking better ways of engaging and allowing a broad diversity of voices to aid in how we may imagine our built environment. Hansel Bauman, Campus Architect for Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the first university for the deaf and hard of hearing in the world, sums it up like this: “Concern and awareness of another’s condition and how that will set up an impact on the conversation will allow for the architecture to manifest itself. Architects are trained to imagine and build the environment in which we live in and make it real. You would think that at the core of architectural education, what we’re about – as architects – would be to have skills and the toolset that enables us to literally, very physically embody this idea of empathy, or of understanding the other.”
With mindfulness of dimension, form, light, material and color, architects can shape environments that reflect the needs of those with differing abilities and ways of experiencing the world. It is the users with whom we engage who can enlighten us on the uniqueness of being and differences of navigating spaces. Considerations for people of all abilities, reinforced by the aesthetics, ultimately can result in design that allows users to participate in community. Inclusive design empowers the users by providing independence and ownership of the space.
Projects at Gallaudet University and the Rosedale School in Austin, Texas, embrace and illustrate inclusive design thinking and processes.
Our work at Gallaudet University is shepherded by the university’s DeafSpace guidelines, which detail how to create appropriate environments for the users where interactions rely on visual and tactile communication. We have completed numerous projects on the campus using the guidelines and have developed strategies for combining code, sustainability goals and the DeafSpace goals while also creating collaborative student-centered learning environments.
The Rosedale School, a school for students with severe special needs including social behavioral conditions, medically fragile and autism. The student-to-teacher or -aid ratio is one-to-one resulting in a deep understanding of each child. The design team relied on caregivers as advocates for students’ needs. Numerous programming and design charettes resulted in a final design of two neighborhoods with communities tailored to the needs of each student group. Central to neighborhoods is a glazed nodal community center from which three primary streets radiate. The first neighborhood contains a series of enclosed niches, womblike spaces, to huddle social behavioral students who have extreme sensory capabilities, as this provides focus and boundary. The second is a neighborhood of the medically fragile, which has broad hallways for wheelchairs and gurneys, and provides transparency and openness to each other and to exterior gardens. Through the stakeholder engagement, we were able to explore design techniques that achieve agency for all.
As Architecture for the Blind Founder Chris Downey describes, the goal is “not creating an adaptive environment that is targeted exclusively and solely to those with particular disabilities, but ultimately envisioning an environment that works for all, inclusive of all.”
The more accurately that buildings and cities can capture the needs of everyone in society, the more they empower difference, inclusion and a sense of belonging.
Published in the June 2020 issue of Building Dialogue.