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The 7 Principles of Universal Design for Buildings

Universal design is a set of 7 principles that focus design on functionality for every type of user

What is Universal Design?

We all take some functions and activities for granted, and it is easy to forget that just because it works for one group doesn’t mean it works for everyone in the same way.

Universal design is a set of 7 principles that are the main focus points for any design, from products to rooms. It is defined online as:

“Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability”

This guide looks at the principles in relation to building design – making a building accessible and simple for as many people as possible.

The Process of Universal Design

  1. Determine what you are designing using the UD method
  2. Specify who the target audience is and the variety of user profiles that need to be considered – including mentally and physically disabled, less mobile, blind and deaf, elderly, children and foreign language speakers.
  3. Get feedback from relevant user profiles through focus groups, discussions and information dissemination.
  4. Apply the universal design principles, and any other regulations required from the Building Regulations and other standards
  5. Find solutions to areas where universal design cannot be applied (e.g. installing a platform lift where stairs are unavoidable)
  6. Create a feedback loop from the users of your design to continually improve and modify, as well as training users and relevant people if required.

The 7 Elements of Universal Design

Principle 1: Equitable Use

Making sure that usability of the design is equal for all users, including those with a mental or physical disability, the elderly and children through either an identical or similar process.

This also applies for the aesthetics and safety functions – everyone should be able to enjoy or use the finished outcome equally.

For example: For identical use, making entranceways at ground level means wheelchair users can still access the building. An example of similar use is installation of a platform lift near a staircase, meaning people of all abilities can access all floors.

 

Principle 2: Flexibility in Use

The design should incorporate flexibility for use in differing ways – whether this be preference or requirement based on ability or mobility.

Speed is common; making it possible to slow down or speed up based on the users skill or mobility. Another common example is to design for both left and right handed people.

For example: a fold down shower seat allows less mobile users to sit, as well as the elderly, but by folding away the shower can still be used by the ambulant or those who prefer not to.

 

Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use

Regardless of ability, age, language, mobility (and so on) the user should be able to understand the design and be able to use it easily. The easier it is to use, the more people will be able to use it.

Reducing complex information is key, making it unambiguous. Take into account a range of language and reading abilities, and ensure that there are pointers, instructions or feedbacks if required.

For example: Ikea have designed all of their shops to have a simple route guiding customers through the shop. This is clearly marked with simple arrows on the floor, easy for anyone to understand.

 

Principle 4: Perceptible Information

The design should provide any required information to every user. This should apply to all situations, including the blind, or a noisy environment. Use of pictures, verbal and tactile information provide information clearly –but where text is used, remember to keep it clearly readable using a simple font.

The most important information should be the most prominent, using a ‘visual hierarchy’ concept.

For example: All Gartec lifts can have buttons with the floor number clearly written, tactile braille buttons and voice annunciation at floors, making it clear and simple for all users.

Principle 5: Tolerance for Error

The safety features of your design should incorporate features to minimise risks and hazards, aiming for a foolproof design. If removal of a hazard is possible this is best, but if not then the potential hazard should be guarded or shielded, unaccessible, or have clear warnings.

If hazards are present, minimising the impact of accidents is

For example: accidents on the stairs are very common. Stairs are an important feature of a building so cannot be removed, but by installing a handrail, the hazard is minimised.

 

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort

The design allows the user to operate without unnecessary physical effort or fatigue, at a normal or comfortable position. Reducing repetitive motion or sustained action is also important.

For example: use of lever door handles instead of knobs reduces required movement and need for strong grip

 

Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use

For all people, the design should allow for approach and use, suitable for different heights, sizes and ages. If the design involves interactivity or reach, remember to allow for smaller hands and seated users, as well as leaving space for any equipment that the user may have to take around with them, like crutches or assistive technology.

For example: a kitchen worktop that is simple to lower or raise, with a clear area surrounding it leaving space for a wheelchair user to turn, allows a variety of heights, ages and abilities use and reach various items in the kitchen.

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