How Can Buildings Work for Everyone? The Future of Inclusivity and Accessibility in Architecture
One of the most important challenges in architecture, when it comes to creating spaces that work for everyone, is the diversity that exists in people, their needs, and how to integrate them into a design. Disabilities are more than a condition; they are a way of living according to human diversity that requires architectural solutions of equivalent multiplicity.
According to data from the World Bank, it is estimated that 1 billion people –equivalent to 15% of the world’s population– live with some type of disability. In the future, this percentage could increase considerably, given the global trend of aging populations. To face this growing challenge, architecture will have to adapt quickly, due to the role that built environments have in constituting a barrier or a path for the inclusion of people with different types of disabilities, seniors, as well as diverse groups who make up the human plurality.
Accessibility and universal design are commonly associated with ramps and tactile paving, as they are the elements with the greatest presence in built environments and are usually required by mandatory codes. To go beyond these requirements, innovative design and technology could be among the various responses aimed at promoting inclusion in the future. To do so, it is important to understand disability beyond a condition related to health and understand it as part of the contemporary challenges of our society.
Inclusion, accessibility and universal design in architecture are underexplored fields, with extremely exciting potential and benefits. Even when there are mandatory requirements in these fields, the lack of depth and consideration in them can be painfully noticeable. Requirements are constantly addressed incompletely or are not integrated into the design, being perceived only as a box to be checked and not as a fundamental part of the project. The future could bring solutions applied with a holistic approach, which we simply cannot imagine now, and trends that are likely to recur in the coming years.
Navigating spaces with more than one sense
In design processes, the influence of materials and their conscious use is decisive, given the relationship that exists between architecture and the senses. Sensory disabilities create a barrier to perceiving stimuli from the surrounding context, and as a result, identifying key architectural elements is of paramount importance.
Highlighting the dimensions and textures of architectural elements will be a recurring strategy in the future to facilitate how we identify them, as Pritzker Prize winner David Chipperfield does in his projects, exhibiting materials and highlighting them through contrast; simplifying the space and how to locate oneself in it through touch and sight. In the Saint Louis Art Museum, the use of pure forms in the spaces is decisive to allow for a simple understanding of the space. The contrast between materials and colors is clear; the white walls stand out from the wood on the floor and the concrete of the upper slab.
When it comes to color, high contrast is widely used in signage. This strategy can be extrapolated and applied to architecture by identifying it through color contrasts: in structural elements, stairs, doors, and furniture, so that people with intellectual disabilities and low vision can easily differentiate the elements during navigation.
Light as a material: Contrasts that create paths
The use of light as a material can also be widely used to guide people with low vision. The combination of contrasting volumes, depth planes, and chiaroscuro in corridors, interior courtyards, and lobbies create visual contrasts that clearly identify different architectural elements, which in addition to being visually attractive are also functional to improve the perception of space. This is an example of strategies that can be leveraged in favor of design and have a significant effect.
Consciously designing to take advantage of the incidence of sunlight is another multidimensional strategy. Just as the human eye can identify high contrasts between colors, it can also perceive contrasts from chiaroscuro. The sensitivity of our eyesight to direct sunlight can be filtered and integrated into the design of projects through private patios and skylights.
Careful consideration of the height, orientation, and size of doors and windows can highlight interior elements through light and improve their visibility, in addition to generating benefits in the energy efficiency of the building.
Simpler and more open interior spaces
Around the world, people are living longer than ever before. Most of the current global population has a life expectancy equal to or greater than 60 years, which implies an increase in the number, as well as the proportion, of older people in the population.
Considering that architecture is often a reflection of the needs of its time, we could expect some elements of architecture to evolve to adapt to the design requirements of this population group. Generous spaces with abundant natural light could be a potential trend, as the population of people over 60 is expected to double by 2050. With this increase comes the need to provide safe spaces for both standing and wheelchair access. In this way, people will be able to freely carry out their activities in retirement homes, work, and leisure spaces.
Wider stairs and corridors, spaces with more room for maneuvering, and simple materials could be constants in the design of residential spaces and accommodations in the future. Generating fluid circulation without unevenness will also help to eliminate mobility barriers that are currently still present in architecture.
Furniture made for everyone
The human body has been the reference point for the construction of our environment, but the diversity of physical characteristics makes each person unique and different from others. Just as architecture is fundamentally associated with the human body and its proportions, furniture is linked in the same way, but on a smaller scale.
Throughout history, human archetypal models have been used in architecture and design, from the Vitruvian man to Le Corbusier’s modulor. The problem with these models is that they lose their universality if we take into account that they are based on Eurocentric, masculine models and represented with a uniform physique. This approach disregards any variation that does not conform to these established standards.
In response to the diversity of bodies that exist, we will see furniture design proposals in the future that challenge ergonomic standards and adapt to different conditions, contexts and body shapes.
Innovations incorporated into architecture
Combining data analytics with city mapping
Mapping accessibility in cities is important to identify those places whose conditions allow activities to be performed freely, independently, and without barriers. Kepler.gl is an open-source geospatial analysis tool for large-scale datasets that allows users to map accessibility in built environments in different dimensions, opening the possibility to identify which areas are easier to navigate and which may present barriers.
This tool has found applications such as in the mapping of two districts of the city of Vigo, Spain, where the level of accessibility to children’s leisure in each building was identified. The map consists of calculating the number of steps and the distance a child must travel to reach the nearest children’s area without the assistance of an adult. From this combination, each building is given a numerical value depending on its level of accessibility.
Lighting and smart devices
In the last few years, we have witnessed how different variants of smart technologies have become established in daily life. Devices have diversified into different sectors and found their application from homes to large-scale buildings.
Lighting –as an intrinsic element of architecture– will benefit greatly as we will see advanced systems that can be controlled in a less complex and more remote way, making it easier for anyone to modify environments and lighting levels without physically interacting with a remote control.
The advantages of intelligent systems will translate into better-connected buildings where the needs and preferences of users will be prioritized. Contactless control, voice commands, or gestures will allow greater usability for all people, regardless of whether they have a disability or not, and an environment where the use of physical devices seems to be less necessary.
Regardless of what the future holds, several promising proposals are emerging through various design approaches. As architects, there are many approaches to improving inclusion through architecture, which combined with improvements in policies and codes can lead to a more humane world for all.