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Pushing ADA Beyond the Limits

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires specific measurements and codes that allow access for disabled students. Some campus planners say that isn?t enough?and are looking to universal design concepts.
University Business, Nov 2009

A peak inside the future South Ellicott hall at the University of Buffalo (N.Y.) shows universal design features such as "front porches" located outside multipurpose spaces that can be used as study spaces for all.

KORYDON SMITH CAN TELL BY a quick stroll whether a college campus is doing extra credit when it comes to the Americans with Disabilities Act. As an associate professor of architecture at the University of Arkansas and the head of its Arkansas Universal Design Project, he’d like to see more buildings without the ubiquitous wheelchair symbol pointing to the back door, and instead wheelchairs rolling in through the front.

Likewise, Lynne Deninger, an associate principal at Cannon Design in Boston, pays attention to the landscaping, such as pathways that don’t build in steps every 20 feet to reach a terrace or special space. She’s also on alert for ground-floor public amenity spaces with a variety of seating options in dining rooms.

And there are bigger kudos if these experts spot a temporary facility on a campus?say, a Homecoming tent?offering equal access. “Because they don’t have requirements to meet certain standards, this means the university’s disability service office is being pre-emptive as opposed to waiting for a problem,” points out Sean Vance, director of The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

The demographic that looks back fondly with its checkbook is reaching an age where these folks can't adapt to circumstances as they did when they were students. It's time for the surroundings to adapt to them.

Clearly, for these institutions, the ADA code isn’t merely a checklist. “If you go in with a tape measure, lots of buildings meet code,” says Elizabeth Watson, director of the Center for Students with Disabilities at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. “But in the final layout the functionality just isn’t there.” For instance, does an ADA bathroom still work for a 6-foot, 8-inch basketball player? A transsexual? Vance’s 60-some-year-old mother who is considering going back to college for her PhD?

Now they’re flirting with the concept architects have dubbed “universal design”?layouts striving to be broad-spectrum solutions, producing buildings, products, and environments that are usable and effective for everyone, not just people with disabilities, as the collective wisdom at Wikipedia describes it. Architects consider a building “universally designed” if 95 percent of the population can enter and use the facilities and programming for their purpose.

The concept is not new (the philosophy is pushing 20 years now), nor is it interchangeable with accessibility, as Vance is quick to note. “You can’t circumvent ADA by saying I’ll apply universal design instead,” he explains. “And the minimum accessibility standards do not achieve universal design. That requires a holistic analysis of your conditions.” The NC State campus, he admits bluntly, is not reaching for more than ADA?yet.

But some architects estimate that day is inevitable. James Rayburg, vice president of Cannon Design, recalls working at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access while attending the University at Buffalo. The challenge at the time was looking for the proper way to attach grab bars to walls for ADA compliance. Today he’s the project designer for that institution’s South Ellicott residence hall project, which will open in fall 2011 with a 100 percent universal design philosophy.

Why might campus planners be looking toward universal design now? For starters, the education market is about to see an influx of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Sure, some will have the expected mobility challenges, while others will bring learning disabilities, psychological disabilities, and visual impairments to the table. “They may have disabilities we previously didn’t think of as a disability,” Vance says. Smith’s statistics say one in 10 students today would already fall into the disabled category.

When a campus tries to retrofit universal design as an afterthought,
the costs for things like automatic hardware mount.

Vance also sees universal design as a model to rope in the best researchers and attract alumni endowments. After all, the demographic that looks back fondly with its checkbook is reaching an age where these folks can’t adapt to circumstances as they did when they were students. It’s time for the surroundings to adapt to them.

Getting a leg up in the competition for students is a key motivator. UW-Whitewater currently has between 60 and 65 students in wheelchairs among its 9,000 enrollment, a higher percentage than any other campus in the country, according to Watson’s records.

“A lot of people will say to me, ‘Our campus doesn’t have a need for universal design,’” she notes. But she adds, “Once you build your first accessible building, somebody will come to it.”

Multipurpose spaces within South Ellicott residence hall at the University of Buffalo allow for flexible long-term use of the space.

One reason Vance believes NC State is not on the universal design forefront is because it is a new frontier. “Nobody knows whether a specific choice will work specifically to overcome a barrier,” he says. “And without it being built, implemented, [and] tested, and a post-occupancy evaluation, there’s no way to prove it either. It’s guessing?and you’re saying someone will invest $40 million into a new facility based on a theory that may or may not work.” After all, the human body is a varying model; what Vance designs for one person might not work for the next.

That hasn’t stopped UW-Whitewater from giving it the old college try, however. After spending the better part of her career immersed in universal design talk, Deninger takes the basic ideas, like a hallway wide enough for two wheelchairs to pass in the night, for granted. And so far, she’s received little pushback for individual suggestions like this at campuses across the country. But UW-Whitewater stands out as one of the few willing to go for universal design in more than one building.

She’s gotten positive feedback from UW-Whitewater students on Cannon Design’s proposed idea for two-bedroom suites at a new dorm that would include a shared, universally designed bathroom. “The focus group was blown away by the concept, because they had never had an opportunity in their lifetime to live with another student who was also disabled,” she says. “What could be a more normal college experience than two best friends rooming together? To me, that was the peak accomplishment.” It also turned out to be a more efficient use of square footage than 25 single suites with accessible bedrooms and baths.

And that’s exactly the depth of information campus project planners need to know before they get out the power tools, Deninger emphasizes. Most of the campuses she works with establish an accessibility committee or executive director to oversee this aspect. In UW-Whitewater’s case, discussions for a new universally designed residence hall began three full years before the institution broke ground, and they included input from students with a range of impairments.

There are budgetary benefits to early action. Even when renovating historic buildings, campuses are budgeting more for energy-efficient solutions than universal design updates, Smith says.

Watson keeps the cold, hard numbers at her fingertips for making the case for universal design: On a $34 million residence hall project, universal design options added less than $500,000 to that bottom line number. “At the end of the day, our cost was significantly less than putting in shiny glass windows,” Watson notes.

The trick, Deninger shares, is to thoughtfully draw up the plans to support universal design goals from the pre-RFP stage so that the architect team can deliver at the projected price point. It’s when a campus tries to retrofit universal design as an afterthought that the costs for things like automatic hardware mount. “There is a square footage increase when you try to go beyond code, too,” she warns. “To minimize the effect, we try to be more economical about where we place the rooms.”

The buildings that student input sessions helped produce at UW-Whitewater are chock-full of innovative features:

Upon its completion in fall 2011, the University at Buffalo's South Ellicott residence hall will prove that attention to aesthetics is as important on the outside as it is on the inside.

? Roomy restrooms. At the Timothy J. Hyland Hall, which houses the College of Business and Economics, each floor offers two fully accessible unisex bathrooms, which translates not only to comfortable space but floor drains to flush urine bags, a common necessity for wheelchair students. Even the regular restrooms are laid out to make it a no-brainer for mobile students to move easily in and out of the disabled stall, as well as reach the paper towel dispenser, soap, and other amenities not on an architectural drawing. “Putting the hand dryer where someone’s head will whack into it is not very accessible,” Watson says.

? Classroom options. The standard lecture hall classrooms, by law, must offer a percentage of accessible seats among the bolted chairs for disabled students, “and the architect usually sticks them where it’s easiest to chop some chairs out,” Watson explains. “We said, ‘We know that’s easiest, but we need more choices.’” As a result, they scattered the accessible seats so any student at Hyland Hall may choose to sit with friends in the front row, the back row, the middle or in-between.

? Areas to congregate. The as-yet-unnamed residence hall, scheduled to open in fall 2010, keeps in mind the need for disabled students to mingle with able-bodied friends throughout the building. That means every suite allows a 60-inch diameter turn for wheelchairs to spin in any one direction, whether students congregate in the kitchen, entryway, living area, or bathroom. Chic pub-height counter stools? Forget about them. These dorm suites feature cookie cutter counters at ADA heights.

“Instead of making some rooms cool and others just accessible, we treat it all equally,” Watson says.

The residence hall will also include:

? Shower stalls that come with kick plates and the blocking to install handrails at a later date.

? Kitchens boasting refrigerators with bottom drawer freezers instead of hard-to-reach top loaders (a bonus: energy efficiency).

? In universal suites designed specifically for disabled students, linoleum in the main living area for better tread tracking and easier clean up should a power chair leak oil.

? Also in those suites, bathrooms that break the sink/vanity area out separately from the toilet and shower. These units actually offer two shower spaces, as personal care time for a disabled person can take longer, so the layout doesn’t leave a student feeling like he or she has infringed on a roommate’s time.

? Cabinetry in the universal suites that avoid open shelving. Everything has pull drawers or trays that slide out from cabinets. (Think of the pot drawers homeowners are now building into upscale kitchens; that will be a standard accessibility feature here.)

? Carpeting throughout the common areas featuring deliberate material changes (from linoleum to a tight nap carpet, for instance) and high/low contrast at doorways to assist students with vision impairment. The cinderblock walls are burnished with grooves at hip height so students can run a finger down them to follow the hallway. The feature is as useful for sight-impaired students as it is for those whose judgment may have been impaired during a night out.

“‘Universally designed’ means everybody with every type of impairment whether it’s temporary or long-standing,” Watson quips. Even the hall bulletin boards outside the elevator are color-coded to help those with memory difficulties find a location. “It’s not huge, but it’s just enough to help someone cue in where numbers may not be their thing,” Watson adds.

One of the most effective touches the University at Buffalo will include for South Ellicott is that outlets will be placed 17 inches above the floor. And for countertops and flooring, contrasting colors were chosen to assist someone with vision difficulties. The cost: zero. The impact: priceless. “Designing this building has changed our team’s perspective,” Rayburg says. “I’d never do it any other way now, even with campuses that don’t specifically choose to label projects universal design.”

The UW-Whitewater team, meanwhile, took no less than 20 versions on the drawing board to settle on the details for its residence hall. “There is no rulebook,” Watson sums up. “If you approach universal design as good function, a lot of times you demystify it. Everybody starts saying, ‘How would that work for this?’ instead of ‘Well, what’s the measurement?’”

Julie Sturgeon is a freelance writer based in Greenwood, Ind., who frequently covers construction topics.

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