Credit: Lauren Nasseff

Ask an architect about universal design today, and you’ll hear about the ADA, wheelchair ramps, and grab bars. But a growing number of architects have expanded the definition beyond design for physical disabilities. They want to ensure that spaces work for people of all possible physical, sensory, and cognitive abilities. “This is the next movement towards sustainability,” says Jim Warner, FAIA, 2011 chair of the AIA’s Design for Aging Knowledge Community.

There are obvious and not-so-obvious reasons that the profile of universal design has risen. As baby boomers age, they will create an unprecedented level of demand for aging-in-place design features. With depressed home prices, boomers can no longer assume they’ll turn a profit on their investment, which might have allowed them to move to houses that better fit their needs as they age. Last year, the Brookings Institution reported that interstate moves between March 2009 and March 2010 were at their lowest rate since 1948.

But aging-in-place is only one element of universal design. Valerie Fletcher, executive director of the Institute for Human Centered Design in Boston, says that architects have to start paying attention to brain function as much as physical ability. In the past 25 years, she says, the percentage of children in special education classes with brain-based limitations has rocketed to 86 percent. “How do we create classrooms, community centers, and homes where the reality of brains that work differently has been anticipated?”

Universal design is largely about being realistic. Anyone who is pushing a stroller, pregnant, or particularly tall or short can benefit from universal design. In fact, the need for universal design is just that—universal.

We all fall short of the “able-bodied” ideal. Our abilities vary, and we can all expect them to decline over time, says Stefani Danes, AIA, of Perkins Eastman in Pittsburgh. Last fall, Danes and a group of AIA members visited the universal design research facilities of the plumbing products manufacturer TOTO in Japan. Both universal design (with ADA regulations) and sustainability (with the International Green Construction Code) are going through a code-based development phase, but Danes says that true universal design doesn’t come from following minimum standards. “It challenges us to get away from singular answers—to much richer arrays of possibilities that are deliberately and thoughtfully designed.”

The Forbush School in suburban Baltimore employs these progressive approaches to universal design. Designed by Cho Benn Holback+Associates and completed in 2008, it’s a school for 5- to 21-year-olds with severe autism. Integrated early during initial programming exercises, the school’s universal design features are subtle and useful for everyone that uses the facility, not just children.

Autistic children can be very sensitive and reactive to their environment and are more likely to have cognitive limitations. The school features very clear and rational circulation patterns, in which soft colors indicate various zones and programs. Specific therapy offices are integrated into each classroom wing, and hallways are wider than usual because autistic children can be hypersensitive to personal-space boundaries. The school is also designed for durability, but without a threatening aura of institutionalization. Its architects selected a reinforced gypsum panel that looks more like typical drywall, instead of more institutional-looking concrete masonry blocks.

Cho Benn Holback project architect Rima Namek, AIA, turned what seemed to be design constraints into strengths. Students won’t be the only ones to appreciate the building’s noninstitutional air and straightforward design. New visitors to the building will take note of the clear layout, as well.

Namek says that she witnessed more than one student meltdown while studying the school, but overall Forbush is a happy place, free of institutional stigma. “We were trying to customize the space so that it addressed a population’s special needs, but we were trying to create a place where … [the students] could feel normal,” she says.

The feeling of normalcy is the goal for universal design users and the movement itself, Namek says, while the rest of the built environment tells these users that they’re anything but normal. As for sustainability, the ultimate measure of success is when universal design is indistinguishable from good design.

Written by Zach Mortice.