Universal Design — Nc State Leads The Way

Circa 2006

When was the last time you had to scale a flight of stairs with a heavy set of luggage? Or using crutches? Could you cross the threshold into your home on your own if you were seated in a wheelchair? Not every building design fits the needs of every person. But Dick Duncan is trying to change that.

Duncan is the project manager at North Carolina State University’s Center for Universal Design, one of the leading research centers in the country focusing on design solutions that will meet the needs of a wide variety of people. At the center, researchers and students are getting their hands dirty trying to integrate these design concepts into mainstream building practices.

The late Ron Mace, founder of the center and an internationally recognized architect, coined the term universal design to describe 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. The idea is that it is far more efficient and cost-effective to design buildings, environments and products that everyone can use, rather than having to continually adapt them for people with different abilities through renovations, special adaptors or parallel systems that don’t interface with each other.

Mace graduated from NC State in 1966 with an architecture degree, and four years later he helped initiate the first building code for accessibility in the United States—a code that became mandatory in North Carolina in 1973 and was used as a template for other states.

In 1989, Mace established the Center for Universal Design at his alma mater. Under his direction, projects such as universally designed house plans, thermostat designs, an adjustable toilet, faucets and a multi-use modular bathing unit came to fruition.

Today, that same research and production continues under the leadership of Duncan, who says the progress the center is making meets a growing trend across the nation to rethink traditional design concepts. As the Baby Boomers hit their 60s, market pressures are soaring for the business community to address issues like accessibility, as it affects the boomer generation in large numbers.

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Fortunately, with the actions of the disability rights movement—culminating in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990—America is further ahead than many other countries in implementing universal design, at least in many of its commercial and public arenas. “This country has better accessibility provisions than most of the rest of the world,” says Duncan, who has worked in the area of architectural accessibility and universal design for more than 17 years. “We have been working on this for about 50 years. All of this progress came from the disability community.”

But Duncan notes that universal design by definition does away with the distinctions between disabled and able-bodied in terms of design considerations. “Let’s remind ourselves that all of our human abilities exist on parallel continuums that change daily and over our lives. We are collections of different abilities in each of these domains. While disability is of great historical and policy importance, people with disabilities exist on the same ability continuums, just at different points.”

The Center for Universal Design is working to provide design concepts that apply across those changing continuums, but more importantly serves as an educational arena to prepare designers for the day when all design work will be centered on universal design concepts. The center provides services in research, design, training and outreach through a variety of ongoing projects.

The vision of the Center for Universal Design extends across the built environment, which encompasses not only housing but also places of public accommodation, commercial facilities, transportation facilities and communications systems. As comfort, safety and flexibility become key words in advertising, and emerging technologies respond to the needs of people of all ages, abilities and sizes, the mainstream design world must increasingly accept and embrace universal design if it wants to avoid being left behind.

Of course, other influences—such as legislation—affect design practices as well. As the U.S. does not yet have national legislation requiring accessibility in single-family homes (although several states, counties and cities have enacted such legislation), the building community has been slower to adopt universal design for residential homes than for other types of construction. In response, the Center for Universal Design has multiple projects demonstrating how living space can be improved for newly constructed homes.

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Duncan acknowledges that too many builders still don’t embrace universal design concepts but says that those who do not are simply overlooking the obvious, according to the market. “Their attitude problems, conservatism and lack of imagination impede them,” he says. “Or they don’t yet see the market forces trending that way.”

But with a newly trained group of designers hitting the job market—with educational backgrounds that include universal design—the timing may be right.

One of the center’s goals is to integrate universal design across NC State’s design program. From freshmen courses to graduate school, students increase their work in the program through interaction opportunities and independent studies. Universal design concepts are introduced at the freshman level, and by the time students become upperclassmen, research and improvement become the primary focus as they work on projects the center supports.

But education isn’t limited to college. Grade school classes, senior adult education and public lectures are offered at the center, exploring products, housing, the non-residential built environment, codes and standards, and urban design. The center also reaches out to professional designers and engineers.

Perhaps the most significant project the Center for Universal Design has produced is the Principles of Universal Design, a group of standards that may be used to evaluate existing designs, guide the design process and educate designers and consumers about characteristics that make products and environments more usable. The principles are referenced all over the world and have been translated to 10 different languages. They make the definition of universal design operational, providing an easy, step-by-step checklist that businesses or designers can use when adopting universal design concepts.

These days the Center for Universal Design is not acting alone in bringing universal design concepts to the mainstream. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Trace Center, where engineering and technology are the focus, is also among the elite centers around the nation working to incorporate universal design into everyday building projects. The University of Buffalo, Southern Cal and Georgia Tech are other universities that have similar programs or centers.

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NC State, however, will always be home, and it’s taking care of its own backyard. The Center for Universal Design is currently involved in several projects that benefit the state of North Carolina and its communities.

For example, the center is working to provide technical assistance to the multifamily housing industry, creating multiple publications that have become resources for the industry. Technical assistance, reviews and project support allow the center to serve as a consultant to builders and designers.

It also hosts an outreach and dissemination program that assists the general public by collecting and developing materials and publications, giving informational presentations and providing telephone information and referral services. A related program provides more detailed technical assistance, such as actual design options and reviews.

Through the guidance of Duncan and the eagerness of his students, the Center for Universal Design is helping build a more accessible future for everyone.

by Josh Pate


EQUITABLE USE—the design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

1. Provide the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible, equivalent when not.

2. Avoid segregating or stigmatizing any users.

3. Make provisions for privacy, security and safety equally available to all users.

4. Make the design appealing to all users.

FLEXIBILITY IN USE—the design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

1. Provide choice in methods of use.

2. Accommodate right- or left-handed access and use.

3. Facilitate the user’s accuracy and precision.

4. Provide adaptability to the user’s pace.

SIMPLE AND INTUITIVE USE—use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level.

1. Eliminate unnecessary complexity.

2. Be consistent with user expectations and intuition.

3. Accommodate a wide range of literacy and lan guage skills.

4. Arrange information consistent with its importance.

5. Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.

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PERCEPTIBLE INFORMATION—the design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

1. Use different modes (pictorial, verbal and tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information.

2. Maximize legibility of essential information.

3. Differentiate elements in ways that can be described (i.e., make it easy to give instructions or directions).

4. Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.

TOLERANCE FOR ERROR—the design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

1. Arrange elements to minimize hazards and errors: the most used elements should be most accessible, and hazardous elements should be eliminated, iso lated or shielded.

2. Provide warnings of hazards and errors.

3. Provide fail-safe features.

4. Discourage unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance.

LOW PHYSICAL EFFORT—the design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

1. Allow the user to maintain a neutral body position.

2. Use reasonable operating forces.

3. Minimize repetitive actions.

4. Minimize sustained physical effort.

SIZE AND SPACE FOR APPROACH AND USE— Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use regardless of the user’s body size, posture or mobility.

1. Provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user.

2. Make reach to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user.

3. Accommodate variations in hand size and grip strength.

4. Provide adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.

Source: The Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University

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