Erick Mikiten, AIA, was deeply involved in conversations about accessibility long before passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. A principal at Mikiten Architecture, Mikiten is an expert in the practice of universal design, defined as “the design of products and environments to be usable for all people to the greatest extent possible without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” He sees building codes and the ADA as a bare minimum starting point—and implements that philosophy in a variety of building types, pushing boundaries in single-family homes and multifamily complexes to institutional facilities and commercial buildings.
When my wife and I started our firm, we focused on affordable housing projects. I was born into public housing in the Bronx, and my wife helped start a local nonprofit housing development company while in grad school at UC Berkeley. Our passion was to bring green building and artful design into the affordable housing sector, where each were lacking at the time.
Based on my personal experience as a lifetime wheelchair rider, I designed accessibility into those projects that was more thoughtful than the simplistic code requirements. That was always important to me, remembering the elements that I couldn’t use as a kid in the 5,000-unit complex that my family lived in—the public facilities, the pools, and the playground—and a lifetime of other buildings that made me feel unwelcome. It was natural to design everything to be available to everyone, regardless of ability, regardless of age. It took years for that idea to be defined as universal design and come into the public consciousness, or at least the consciousness of the profession.
Early in my career, some firms I worked for pigeonholed me as an access technician. The main drive of why I wanted to start my own firm was to grow beyond that perception and find opportunities for artistic expression. Although I always approached projects from a universal design mindset, I often kept it in the background so that my clients wouldn’t pigeonhole me. It took years for me to realize that these two ideas—accessibility and art—didn’t need to be either/or; that my drive for sculptural expression could actually be the vehicle for inspiring people to do better universal design. So I started consciously integrating the two. People shy away from accessible design because they believe it will be cold and institutional. But as I tell our clients and the other firms I work with, the more deeply you understand the rationale behind universal design, the easier it integrates into beautiful buildings.
Keeping all people in mind benefits everybody at all times of their lives, which in turn, makes everyone feel welcome. And that’s just good design. —As told to Katherine Flynn