When I began my architectural career, practitioners were still coming to terms with the American Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The civil rights law and its accompanying accessibility guidelines (ADAAG) brought profound changes to the design of many components in the built environment, including circulation systems, restrooms, and signage. Although the ADA’s goal to ensure more equitable access in and around buildings was common sense, not all architects appreciated the prescribed changes. One of my supervisors even compared the newly mandated dimensions for accessible bathroom stalls to a football field.

Much has changed in nearly three decades, and the ADAAG criteria are now ingrained in architects' mindsets. Furthermore, the ADA’s focus on access for persons with disabilities has since inspired a variety of welcome approaches—such as universal design, lifespan design, and design for all—that champion equality in the designed environment. Yet, despite these positive changes, many architects continue to approach accessibility as an obligation rather than an opportunity.

In her book Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design (MIT Press, 2018), Kat Holmes argues that an inclusive environment goes beyond the adherence to prescribed dimensions: “It also considers the psychological and emotional impact on people.” Holmes, a UX design director at Google, asserts that inclusive design should not be considered a marginal commitment but a catalyst for innovation. This approach that not only reduces barriers but also promotes participation.

In applying Holmes’ argument to architecture, one can find compelling examples of inclusive design at multiple scales as an opportunity rather than a constraint.

Whole Buildings
In Stans, Switzerland, local firm Architekten CM designed the Weidli Stans Foundation, an addition to a disabled adult daycare center, with a multi-story atrium that includes a series of dramatically sweeping ramps. The architects thus channeled their commitment to barrier-free access into a space-shaping endeavor.

Kirstine Mengel Musholm multi-purpose hall
Kirstine Mengel Musholm vacation residences

Another example is Norwegian firm AART Architects’ expansion of Musholm, the Danish Muscular Dystrophy Foundation in Korsør, Denmark, which consists of a multi-purpose sports hall wrapped with a 100-meter (approximately 328-foot)long ramp that cultimates in an observation room with a dramatic view of the ocean. The project also includes 24 accessible vacation residences. According to Danish minister of culture Mette Bock, “This amazing place shows clearly that there is no problem in making handicap friendly buildings that are beautiful. You simply long to be here.”

Adaptive Reuse and Interiors
Spanish firm Serrano + Baquero explored the full potential of multifunctional programming in Inclusport, an 80-square-meter (approximately 861-square-foot) facility for disabled athletes. The architects approached the space—an interior remodel within an existing concrete building—as a territory for sports and exercise. They exposed the structure and covered the floor with a black sports surface, allowing spaces to be subdivided as needed via movable translucent screens.

Earlier this year, architect Joel Sanders, AIA, historian Susan Stryker, and law professor Terry Kogan launched an initiative called Stalled! that proposes a new set of bathroom design guidelines. The team’s prototypes reinvent the standard public restroom by removing the corridor wall and delineating different zones for grooming, washing, and eliminating. The provision of secure individual stalls enables all bathrooms to be gender-neutral, and the new open layout offers improved maneuverability for the physically disabled.

Furniture and Appliances
Berlin-based industrial designer Dirk Biotto recognized the limitations of most kitchen designs for the disabled, prompting him to create ChopChop. Although food preparation is a daily activity for many people, the typical kitchen layout presents significant challenges for individuals who cannot stand or reach remote dishware. Biotto’s solution is embodied in simple wood and steel modules with adjustable countertops. The designer carefully considered the materials and scale of everything from the sink to the pot storage in his kitchen concept.

London-based Ross Atkin Associates applied similar thinking in its Responsive Street Furniture project, which seeks to improve the pedestrian experience for the disabled. The project consists of a collection of interfaces that activate in the presence of someone with impaired mobility (based on smartphone ID or key-fob technology). Street lights brighten, audio bollards reinforce location information, and seating bollards unfold to provide places for rest.

Responsive Street Furniture Demo from Ross Atkin on Vimeo.

Thresholds such as doorways represent significant points of contact between people and architecture. As Finnish architect and former Helsinki University of Technology dean Juhani Pallasmaa declared in The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and Senses (Wiley, 2012), “The door handle is the handshake of the building.” Unfortunately, such a small detail as a doorknob, if not designed thoughtfully, can also communicate a profound sense of exclusion to particular users. With this realization in mind, Newcastle upon Tyne–based designer Rowan Nowell created a prototype for a more inclusive door handle. Recognizing that standard rotating door knobs impart undue stress on the wrist, Nowell designed a handle that pivots in plan (as opposed to section), making doors much easier to open for many individuals—including non-disabled users with their hands full.

Grantham, U.K.–based manufacturer Eclisse recommends avoiding standard hinged doors for inclusive design projects altogether, instead advocating the use of sliding doors. When users who use wheelchairs operate sliding doors—either pocket or wall-mounted varieties—the “awkward backward and forward motion needed when using a hinged door is completely eliminated,” states the manufacturer. Additionally, sliding doors benefit all users due to the increased usable floor space and reduced likelihood of injury.

The pursuit of inclusive design is fundamentally important not only because it provides access to people with varying abilities, but also because it avoids the stigmatizing effects of designs targeted specifically to a particular audience. Challenges exist in cases where a particular element may benefit some groups and not others, such as tactile paving strips for the blind that may inhibit the mobility of the elderly. However, in most circumstances, innovative approaches can be effective because they provide optimal functionality and because their novel designs are welcoming to a broad population.

In short, inclusive design should not merely accommodate our experience within the built environment—it should inspire it.