Peter Dressel

Joel Sanders, FAIA, is a founding principal of New York–based MIXdesign and a professor of practice in the Yale School of Architecture. He has broken ground over the course of his career in inclusive design, and we talked to him about the principles behind his mission-driven practice.

In 2016, I established MIXdesign, a new branch of my architectural studio JSA. MIXdesign is an inclusive design think tank that supports the civil rights, health, and well-being of marginalized communities typically left out of the architectural conversation. We work with progressive clients to develop tools for making everyday building types—like public restrooms, workplaces, campuses, and museums—safe and accessible for a wide spectrum of people with different identities and embodiments.

Unlike most accessibility standards in the United States, which tend to focus on people with physical or sensory disabilities alone, we consider the intersecting needs of a broader spectrum of the population: disability (people with mobility, sensory, and neurodiversity challenges), gender (women, trans, and nonbinary folk), and culture (spatial requirements associated with race and religion).

We offer an alternative to the “separate but equal” model of most accessibility standards that prescribe physical accommodations like separate ramps and entrances, which unintentionally segregate and stigmatize those with “special needs.” Our goal is to enable the maximum number of differently embodied and identified people to interact in different settings. However, we recognize that there are ways of being different that don’t allow for one-size-fits-all solutions; for this reason, our designs accommodate people and communities with unique functional and privacy needs.

Now with the spread of the coronavirus, all of us have become hyperaware and often anxious about how to maneuver safely within once familiar but now disabling spaces. MIX believes that in order for people to feel safe but connected, they need public spaces designed to minimize environmental stressors induced by disorientation and overstimulation triggered by noise, light, and crowds. Reducing environmental stressors depends on spatial awareness: sensory cues that make people aware of the presence and activities of others, especially in unfamiliar places.

Inclusive design is in a similar place as sustainable design was 20 years ago when architects were skeptical that clients would invest the time and resources to make buildings more efficient. Moving forward, AIA needs advocates to make inclusive design a central part of design education in the same way that sustainable design is today. Only then can inclusive design principles not be an afterthought, like code compliance, but a central and integrated aspect of the entire design and implementation process. As MIXdesign team member Magda Mostafa says, “When you design for extreme conditions, we all benefit.”