In response to the essay “Standarder og Nuancer “ by Christine Bjerke.
There is an adage, design for all is design for none. Found in many places but of particular importance is the USAF studies of ergonomics in the 1950s and 1960s. What is now the basis for all contemporary studies in ergonomics, the USAF research sought to establish a universal design in their aeroplanes and uniforms. Bodies were measured and mapped, actions were closely studied and a standard for design was created. What ensued, however, was a design model that theoretically accounted for the 90th percentile but only suited a small range of humans: it forgot the simple fact that all our bodies are different and that when you try to design for everyone, you are in fact designing for no-one.
True ergonomic design is adaptable, flexible and plastic to its users needs. Where we aren’t able to change the size of a fighter jet cockpit, we are able to shift the height of a table, offer clothes in different sizes and scale our needs appropriately.
Where this falls flat is in the realm of architecture and urban design, where design has been thought in concrete terms and has been intended to cater for most people. When we cater for most, we miss the margins where design is of special importance.
Inclusive design can be the field of including more people in the outcomes of good design or including more people in the process of design. Well intentioned but practically impossible. Why impossible? We are all different, we are diverse, we are unique. Inclusive design will always exclude a slim percentage of the population and that should be accepted as a good thing. Good design is all about intention, intention of what is the desired outcome and who are the users. What happens when we try to include every single person is that there are too many factors to include and in many cases, factors that are contrary to others and in effect cancel each other out.
Successful inclusive design when done well is intentionally general and should be able to adapt to change and specific user engagement. That is not to say that it should explicitly exclude anyone, it should reference the people it cannot cater for and offer a plastic response so that it can still be used effectively.
Examples of where this has happened is accessible staircases, where there isn’t enough space to cater for a legally sloped ramp. A case study is the integrated staircase/elevators of “Sesame Access”.
As Christine touches upon in their essay, universal design lacks nuance in its approach, particularly when government standards are used. A broad brush is used where a finer tip is required.
The thesis for the 2023 congress for UIA approaches the topic of universal design through the lens that accessible design is important to seek first, that “we will endeavour to reach the furthest behind first.” This, I feel, addresses the issue that universal design has much nuance and many facets but that looking at certain aspects of universal design we can start to build a better image of a large and complicated issue.
And where does this leave us? It leaves us with the knowledge that to include is to also inherently exclude and that if done with intention and professionalism, we can recognise that there is still a long way to go in the realm of universal design. When we approach our projects we can seek to be more accessible, more inclusive and to look at who we are working with and for. We can design to be more flexible and adaptable to change and we can design with the knowledge that our buildings have no final state, that a good building is adaptable and that new user groups that we are not aware of yet will one day inhabit our spaces and that we can allow for them to be included and accommodated in the future.
(The following is a translation from Danish and its accuracy has not been verified).
By Christine Bjerke, Arkitekten 01 vol. 125 p. 20
The concept of universal design is often debated and challenged. Because there is at all an approach to design that can be universal, and don't you risk nuances being lost? The concept of universal design originated in the United States back in the 1980s. The architect Ron Mace, who was a wheelchair user, advocated, among other things, to bring accessibility into the US building code.¹
Mace wrote, among other things:
Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.2
In this way, universal design is closely linked with accessibility, and equal treatment is made part of basic human rights. It is of course a shared social responsibility that people are treated equally, but design and architecture, which create the physical surroundings, have a significant role and responsibility.
In Denmark, around 700,000 - corresponding to 21 percent of the population - between the ages of 16 and 64 have a disability, also called functional impairment. Of these, it is estimated that 45 percent have what is described as a major disability, which corresponds to approx. 313,000 people.3 The figures are based on assessments, as it can be difficult to define a disability, and there is also no tradition of registering it in Denmark. Regardless of the numbers, architects have a responsibility to design with consideration for the diversity of bodies and minds in society.
As studies carried out by the Institute for Human Rights show, it is still a challenge and often impossible for people with some types of disabilities to move around in many buildings. It is part of architects' basic ethical responsibility to be aware of how and when architecture includes and excludes.
The country's schools of architecture have a central role, as universal design and accessibility are still not structurally and culturally integrated into architectural education.
1 2018, the Royal Academy received the Bevica Foundation's Accessibility Award as part of an ongoing collaboration that started in 2016.
But in 2023, universal design and accessibility are still not an established and transversal part of the school's approach to architectural education. On the contrary, it is a focus that continues to be primarily raised locally by initiatives that take place at individual institutes.
There is therefore a need for the education programs to focus much more on the lack of representation among the country's architecture students and teachers, i.a. of people with disabilities, who are underrepresented in the profession.
The lack of focus may be one of the reasons why the architectural profession is no longer advanced when it comes to universal design. In addition, the approach to accessibility in architecture is often practiced in a very traditional way - as requirements and rules that must be complied with in accordance with current legislation in construction, rather than as an opportunity to fundamentally improve inclusion in architecture.
Here, the architect has a responsibility to be critical. Both in relation to ensuring the inclusion of several perspectives and a reflected assessment of the subject's so-called standards. This applies, among other things, to the Neufert painting system from the 1930s, which partly still defines society based on a 'normative approach to body, mind and who uses which parts of the architecture.
In Denmark, there are a number of institutions and organizations as well as individual architectural firms that have an active focus on universal design. This applies especially to Rumsans from Aalborg University, which is a knowledge portal that collects and presents multifaceted perspectives on universal design in a Danish context, but also with international perspectives.
Another central focus comes from the scientific track "Design for Inclusivity" during the World Congress of Architects UIA with the title "Leave No One Behind", which will be held in Denmark in 2023. Here subject experts work with a focus on an intersectionality of e.g. gender, race, ethnicity, disability, age, economic background and species other than humans in the work with architecture.
There is an overall need for us as architects to start celebrating architecture that works with nuances in universal design and care in relation to accessibility as a prerequisite for architectural quality.
Christine Bjerke is architect MAA and study assistant at the Royal Academy.