Peter Blanck's commentary about the GUDC Universal Design Certification of Grand Rapids Michigan YMCA featured in Architectural Record

April 14, 2016

Level Playing Field: True universal design goes beyond mere accessibility.

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In 2015, the New York transit system opened its first new subway station in 25 years; the city of Toronto hosted the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games; the YMCA opened a new facility in Grand Rapids, Michigan; and a San Antonio school for deaf children won a design award for redefining what a learning place can be. What united these disparate events was an underlying commitment to including as wide a range of users as possible: in other words, to universal design.

Indoor track over looking the baasketball courts at the Mary Free Bed YMCA

In the United States, one out of every five adults lives with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most common disability is a mobility limitation (defined as serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs) reported by one in eight adults, followed by disability in thinking or memory, independent living, vision, and self-care.

Over the course of our lives, we are all likely to experience some limitation of our abilities, whether due to injury or illness, frailty in body or mind as we age, or just trying to get around with a child in a stroller. Throughout these changes of circum-stance, universal design—which the notfor- profit research and advocacy group Global Universal Design Commission (GUDC) defines as “a process that enables and empowers a perse population by improving human performance, health and wellness, and social participation”—goes beyond mere accessibility. Its aim is to improve the quality of life.

“When universal design really works,” says Susan Ruptash, a principal at Toronto-based Quadrangle Architects, “people don’t say, ‘Wow! This is accessible.’ They say, ‘Wow! This is fabulous.’" Both people with disabilities and those without are appreciating the new 34th Street/ Hudson Yards subway station, a centerpiece of New York’s redevelopment plan for Manhattan’s far west side. The city’s subway system is more than a century old, and many of its stations are notoriously difficult to navigate. But here, ease of use and inclusive design were key planning concepts. “With this new station in the system, we had the opportunity to integrate all users,” says Beth Greenberg, principal with Dattner Architects, design architects for the project.

The station, designed for a peak hourly capacity of 30,000 commuters, is 125 feet below street level, and the configuration of the descent showcases the inclusive concept. A pair of glass-enclosed inclined elevators, a first in New York’s transit system, travel parallel to the station’s banks of escalators down the long slope from upper to lower mezzanines, enabling passengers with a disability (or stroller, or large load) to experience what Greenberg describes as “a shared quality of movement.”

“Equitable use,” in which an environment provides the same means of use for all users— identical whenever possible; equivalent when not—is one of the primary principles of universal design, according to the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. The idea is that a well-designed environment avoids isolating or stigmatizing any group of users, or privileging one group over another. In fact, the Hudson Yards elevators are so unlike the secondary paths to which less thoughtful design often directs disabled usere elevators’ speed is set low to deter people who don’t need them from riding just for fun.

Prioritizing universal design from the outset of a project maximizes the chancer of garnering the greatest benefit. The inclined elevators, for example, not only foster equity, they also provide an economical solution to a construction challenge: by using the same tunnel as the escalators, the inclined elevators eliminate the need to drill out the separate—and in this case expensive—vertical and horizontal tunnels that would have been needed for a conventional elevator.

Other examples of compound benefits at the station include clarity of way-finding, in which spatial form makes clear which way passengers should go, so that signage becomes supplementary. A 35-foot-wide central platform, the widest in the New York subway system, provides enhanced safety and ease of maneuverability for passengers with and without mobility challenges.

While New York’s new subway station demonstrates the compound advantages of universal design for mobility and inclusion in everyday life, facilities for the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games held last summer in Toronto demonstrated the ability of universal design not just to accommodate thousands of spectators, athletes, volunteers, and officials at a once-in-a-lifetime event, but also to leave a lasting legacy of awareness and inclusion. “People are seeing the Parapan athletes as incredible athletes first and foremost,” says Quadrangle’s Ruptash, who acted as universal design consultant for the planning, design, and compliance of the Games’ four new-build facilities. “The beauty of these high-profile events is that they really raise the bar.”

The largest of the Games’ new facilities, the CIBC Pan Am and Parapan Am Aquatics Centre and Field House (the Pan Am Sports Centre), designed by NORR, includes a multilevel fitness center, two 50-meter-long swimming pools, a pe tank, four competition-size gymnasiums, and a 41-foot climbing wall. The facility is also home to an institute dedicated to the training of high-performance athletes and para-athletes.

Inclusion at the Pan Am Sports Centre begins from the moment of arrival, with a choice of accessible parking spots: larger ones to accommodate mobility-aided passengers who need extra room to transfer from their vehicle, and standard-sized spaces for distance-limited passengers using a cane or walker. The welcome continues with a main reception desk integrating counters of different heights. Highcontrast and tactile signage, wide corridors and doors, elongated power controls for doors permitting operation with an elbow or foot, contrasting and glow-in-the-dark strips for a clearer view of stair edges, and double handrails for visitors of all heights promote ease of movement throughout the building.

Flexibility and choice are fundamental tenets of universal design. At the Pan Am Sports Centre, athletics facilities offer genderspecific and family changing rooms. Roll-in showers (both communal and private), accessible fixtures, and good lighting design ensure that the facilities are easy to use and navigate. Ramps, lifts, and transfer benches provide options for entering a pool independently. Spectators with a disability can enjoy seating locations at all ticket rates without having their views blocked when excited fans jump to their feet.

Most architects would agree that universal design is important. But resources and incentives for creating inclusive environments haven’t always been widely available. To remedy that, the GUDC has developed a universaldesign certification standard. Based on a decade of research, stakeholder consultation, and testing, the certification standard is scheduled to launch later this year. “Our goal was to create a set of universal design standards which exceeded minimum compliance, could be voluntarily adopted, and would spur innovation,” says Peter Blanck, GUDC chairman.

The performance-based standard will comprise over 600 flexible and interactive strategies from which designers select the ones relevant to their project’s goals. Each strategy will be linked to design resources, including supporting research and best practices. Project teams will have the option to certify their achievement by self-certification or third-party audit.

In December 2015, the Mary Free Bed YMCA became the first project to achieve certification in the pilot for GUDC guidelines. “The concept wasn’t so much about designing a facility for persons with disabilities,” says Michael Perry, executive vice president at Progressive AE, architects for the project. “It was really to change the mindset: to design focused on everybody.”

The 116,000-square-foot, $31 million LEEDcertified facility in Grand Rapids, Michigan, includes two gymnasiums, two pools, two group fitness and indoor-cycling studios, an indoor track, climbing wall, tennis courts, playing fields, a greenhouse, teaching kitchen, learning farm, and access to a rapid bus line. In the Y’s central, clerestory-lit volume, a bright yellow ramp forms a promenade between the building’s two floors. There are no stairs. “Often, when you walk into a building, the vertical circulation creates an immediate separation,” says Perry. “Here, we don’t segregate.”

Following up on this initial gesture of inclusion, the building provides a way-finding system designed for multiple age groups and cultures, color schemes and lighting conditions to provide cues to people with all types of visual ability, and hearing loops to enhance functionality for hearing aids and cochlear implants. In pool areas (which often have poor acoustics), acoustic wall panels make a comfortable environment for people with and without hearing aids. Indoor and outdoor spaces accommodate perse needs with fitness equipment specially designed for wheelchair users, ergonomic and barrier-free changing facilities, self-operated transfer stations for entering and exiting the swimming pools, hard-surface trails, and a wheelchair softball field.

Perhaps no group has more to gain from inclusive environments than children, particularly children with a disability. At the Sunshine Cottage School for Deaf Children, in San Antonio, winner of a 2015 AIA chapter design award, primary school children learn in an environment in which every design decision was considered for its impact on their ability to hear.

Sunshine Cottage has occupied its new building since 2010, but it has been helping hearing-impaired kids since 1947. “Can you succeed without a building like this? You can,” says Belinda Pustka, the school’s executive director. “But it’s so much easier now—we aren’t always fighting with the building to be successful. After more than five years here, I can say, ‘the facility facilitates.’ ”

The school’s new campus comprises five structures: one for administration, one for elementary classes, another for parents and infants, and two for early-childhood education. Facilities include 20 classrooms, dedicated rooms for music and art, kitchen space and science labs, a gymnasium with a full-size basketball court, an occupationaltherapy room for speech therapists, and three age-appropriate playgrounds. The campus also includes an amphitheater, outdoor classrooms, a nature trail, and playing fields.

Children with impaired hearing concentrate a huge amount of mental energy on listening. To make learning easier for them, the architects’ primary objective was to increase the environment’s signal-to-noise ratio—in other words, to amplify sounds that mean something (signals), and to eliminate those that don’t (noise).

Strategies included siting the building to minimize traffic noise, designing an acoustically tight building envelope, locating mechanical rooms so that they don’t introduce ambient noise into the occupied spaces, and designing the HVAC system with large ducts so that the air would move slowly and quietly inside them. Light fixtures that wouldn’t hum were selected. Electrical rooms were painted with electromagnetic shielding paint to prevent silent frequencies’ affecting hearing implants. And to get the most—or rather the least—bang for the acoustic buck, panels were applied to walls rather than ceilings. Theresulting quiet, says Greg Papay, a partner at Lake Flato, the project’s architects, “makes us understand how valuable a great acoustical environment is to everyone.”

With the signal-to-noise ratio optimized, the architects’ next objective was to give the children’s hardworking senses some rest. Textures, colors, and materials were selected to harmonize with the adjacent landscape. Ample daylight, views to the outdoors, and settings for outdoor learning were designed to engage the senses in ways that would be restorative. “Schools often edge designers toward primary colors and a cacophony of shapes and sizes, but focusing on the needs of hearingimpaired kids required us to eliminate the extraneous,” says Papay. “We found that a lot of universal design overlaps with what we would do to make a really great learning environment anyway.”

Level Playing Field: True universal design goes beyond mere accessibility.

The Mary Free Bed YMCA has no stairs. Instead, a colorful ramp connects its two levels.

Photo © BILL LINDHOUT