Design for all Abilities

Buildings today are designed to last more than 100 years, and yet many of them can’t effectively be used by a large portion of our population, says Bucksport architect John Gordon, who believes it’s time to expand our definition of sustainable design to include “universal design.”

This concept refers to designing buildings, environments, and tools so that they are usable by as many people as possible, regardless of their levels of physical ability. The idea of creating structures that are both sustainable and universal was dubbed “a new sustainability” by California architect Erick Mikiten. MH+D asked Gordon to tell us more.

Q.Why is universal design so critical?
A. Regardless of the planned use of a building, designing it as the most accessible and usable building possible prevents barriers to access, makes everyone feel welcome, and reduces waste from remodeling to accommodate user needs. One of the tenets of green design is to create durable, flexible buildings that can be adapted to different uses rather than being replaced (construction and demolition account for over a quarter of nonindustrial waste in the U.S.). Whereas green design considers how a building’s entire function and user group can change over time, universal design focuses more on meeting the varied and changing needs of individual users. A young couple who occupy a house today might use the same house for aging in place. It won’t matter that the house was built with green materials if 50 years later the couple must do a major remodel, tossing half of those materials into a landfill.

Q. What other factors make this topic salient today?
A. Our population is constantly changing. We have more children born with disabilities than we used to, and we have the biggest group ever heading into retirement. We need to keep this population in mind when we’re designing buildings to determine how we can meet everyone’s needs. Remember also that this issue affects all of us. If we live long enough, each of us will need supportive environments for lower strength, vision, hearing, and cognition. And many people, able-bodied or not, experience periods of temporary illness and physical injury. If more buildings were supportive of these needs, more people could be active in their communities for longer periods of time.

Q. Does location play a part?
A. Building location is a critical component of a new sustainability. Housing that is strategically sited near transit, shopping, services, and other amenities reduces our carbon footprint and makes it easier for residents to stay put when the effects of aging or injury arise. Such thoughtful siting also encourages participation in neighborhood life and independent access to local goods and services. And adding density to established neighborhoods helps us avoid the development of suburban greenfield sites.

Q. What are some examples of green universal design in your work?
A. A recent project of mine, 363HOUSE, is a prime example of the overlapping goals of sustainable and universal design. This new house, built on an infill lot in a well-established Portland neighborhood, features near net-zero energy performance and a highly accessible living environment for my quadriplegic daughter and her young family. The home is small (2,045 square feet), tight, well insulated, and constructed of durable, low-maintenance materials: metal siding, cement-fiber clapboards, and a standing-seam metal roof. Accessible features include a lift between floors, a ramp between the garage and entryway, and surfaces, storage units, and appliances within easy reach of a wheelchair. Among the house’s subtle yet important details are the custom- designed thresholds for exterior doors. Achieving an accessible, low-profile exterior threshold that keeps the weather out and the heat in can be a significant challenge. Most sills that provide this level of protection have a higher profile, thus rendering wheelchair maneuvering difficult. Our solution incorporated a granite sill recessed into the foundation wall and a high-performance door with a 1⁄4-inch-high roll-over threshold and robust weather seal. We also incorporated a 2-inch-thick piece of rigid insulation, short-circuiting heat loss from the heated concrete floor slab. In the end, we refused to compromise on energy performance, durability, or accessibility. The result? A simple, low-cost solution that works and will last for generations.

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