Promoting Universal Design in Architectural Education

Jim Harrison and Kevin Busby, Linda Horgan

Lecturers, Cork Centre for Architectural Education, UCC/CIT), Lecturer, School of Occupational Therapy,

University College Cork


Although UD is an internationally recognized way of thinking about the built environment, there is still a long way to go before user inclusion becomes a fundamental principle in all design. Education of future professionals is obviously one effective way to achieve this, but might be frustratingly slow if this is to take a new generation to become fully established. Identifying and finding ways of removing the barriers, attitudinal as well as physical, is then a priority area.

The presentation introduces the authors’ collective teaching experiences on ways of sensitising and raising students’ awareness of the barriers and hazards that users face, through observation, simulation or experiential exercises. In order to recognize, in everyday environments, design solutions that are well-integrated and therefore less apparent, techniques to develop both a ‘Critical Eye’ and an ‘Appreciate Eye’ are discussed. Students are widely receptive to such challenges, but some reluctance remains amongst tutors, where UD may be perceived as an impediment to ‘good design’; this may be attributed to aesthetic limitations of many accessibility and safety features, which are difficult to integrate effectively. Since universal design may be difficult for anyone without an experienced eye to recognize, a positive proposal would be to develop a better reference source of good exemplars, with technical explanation and comments.

Although based on the principles of accessibility and the reduction of barriers and hazards, Universal Design goes further to provide for the widest range of users ‘to the greatest possible extent’. But such ubiquity makes it more difficult to legislate for. Regulations generally deal with one element at a time whereas, by definition, UD requires a ‘joined-up’ approach. Most architecture courses teach the importance of building codes in construction design, but the challenge is how to go beyond mere compliance with ‘Part M’ and involve students in really inclusive solutions. Various ways to achieve this through legislation, such as Access Statements, have met with limited success, so as well as the ‘box-ticking’, approach to elemental design, other more positive forms of encouragement are vital: ‘carrots’ rather than ‘sticks’. Initiatives such as the NDA’s Universal Design Challenge are positive steps towards achieving this seamless integration in design.

Proposals to develop full Teaching Modules in Universal Design may seem to be a good idea in principle, but the writers believe that singling out this aspect of design may seem to imply that it can be regarded as an ‘add-on’ rather than an integrated aspect of design. Architecture courses are primarily based on design projects, so that the writing of briefs can discreetly require students to address the real needs of whole populations, from Level One to doctoral research. More optimal ways to inculcate UD would be to include projects with stronger social significance, or focusing on aspects of disability and how designing for users can be mainstream, rather than for special needs.

Pioneering work in Ireland and Asia to establish integration of universal design into the curriculum in schools of architecture will inform the discussion, including techniques learned from professional ‘Training the Trainers’ workshops and the development of accessibility codes, as well as identifying and working with partners in allied professions. At UCC the development of reciprocal teaching arrangements with Department of Occupational Therapy has proven a fruitful field, apprising OT students of ways of working with architects in designing for special needs whilst highlighting their creative abilities; reciprocally, architecture students learn from the experience of OT lecturers in functional ability. Ongoing research into the effectiveness of such enterprises is further detailed.

Based on these precepts, the presentation seeks to stimulate discussion in the workshop, share experiences and elicit positive proposals to integrate UD into architecture courses, on topics to include:

  • Teaching techniques, curriculum and appropriate project topics, including devising access audits and the holistic appraisal of complete life-zones;
  • Practical exercises and experiences in working with user groups;
  • Continuing professional development, including topics of use for educators (which include many part-time tutors) to pass on to their students;
  • Aesthetic barriers and misapprehensions, through exemplars good and bad,
  • Dissertation topics or electives at Masters level;
  • Landscape and conservation issues architecture, pedestrian access and street furniture: working with engineers and planners;
  • Developing Access Champions – individuals sensitized and motivated to promote UD;
  • Thesis and Research topics; two-way exchange between teaching staff and students;
  • Current and future trends in design, such as Lifetime Home concept and future developments in housing provision, the Shared Space concept, adaptive and sensor technologies;

Schools of architecture as resource centres (e.g. providing advice on building adaptations).