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Better living through Universal Design

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Imagine a world - your work or home - where everything from lighting and fixtures to hallways and entryways, is designed to meet the needs of all people with various abilities and limitations: young and old, short and tall, healthy and infirm.

The 10,000-square-foot expansion of SDSU's Interwork Institute creates a workplace that reflects the institute's core mission to promote the integration of all individuals, including those with disabilities, into academic, work, family and community life.

Normal Heights Elementary School, designed from the ground up, takes a difficult site on 5.9 acres and creates ample and easy circulation paths and play areas.

Such spaces exist, thanks to a rather simple forward-thinking architectural concept called Universal Design, which is fast becoming the latest design trend in architecture.

Most people want to be more comfortable in their homes and workspaces. As we live longer and work well past retirement age, we need spaces that evolve with us to meet our changing lives and health conditions.

Universal designs make good sense. They can be enjoyed now and into the future by all inhabitants.

The following examples of universal design to create a barrier-free environment touch on seven organizing principles. It's not surprising how many of these adaptive technologies are commonly used by everyone.

Equitable use: Family toilet rooms allow access for any family member needing assistance. Most people prefer the single larger private restroom to a cramped "able-bodied" stall. Flexibility in use: Adjustable work counters allowing one to customize the height of their work area. Simple and intuitive in use: e.g. Ikea's furniture assembly instructions - illustrations without text. Perceptable information: Closed-caption decoders in television sets that allow users to read the text. Tolerance for error: Software programs that include a failsafe, "Are you sure you want to delete this information?" Low physical effort: Voice recognition computer technology. It may not be long before most of us are talking to control computers and other electronic devices. Size and space for approach and use: Wide doorways and hallways to move people and objects easily from room to room and in and out of a house or office.

At Zagrodnik + Thomas Architects (ZTA), we are now incorporating universal design elements into our projects. In fact, ZTA recently worked as the Universal Design Consultant for an expansion to San Diego State University's Interwork Institute and brought universal design concepts into the design for the new Prop MM-funded Normal Heights Elementary School. These projects are examples of putting universal design concepts into practice.

The 10,000-square-foot expansion of the Interwork Institute gave ZTA a unique opportunity to create a workplace that reflects the institute's core mission to promote the integration of all individuals, including those with disabilities, into academic, work, family and community life.

Proposed design modifications to Interwork's layout include simple intuitive circulation patterns with wider pathways and multi-sensory signals. In other words, if you can't see the sign, you're provided with alternative clues to find your way around, such as talking signs or changes in floor or wall texture. And since people are drawn to daylight, we proposed adding skylights to the second floor to define the major intersections of the circulation path and infuse healthy natural sunlight into the internal areas of the building.

The centerpiece of the Interwork expansion began as a safety concern. Problem: If the building's elevator is out of service, how do people with special mobility needs navigate easily between the first and second floors? Solution: With a wide, gently-sloping, outdoor elevated walkway that begins on the ground floor and connects to the second story -- a walkway for everyone, not just wheelchair users.

The elevated walkway is one of the project's most exciting new additions because it incorporates a myriad of creative universal design ideas, including generous-sized landings that serve as scenic rest spots overlooking the ground level patio and gathering areas. Each of the landings stir the senses through sight, sound, touch and smell to help individuals familiarize themselves with their surroundings.

Moreover, ZTA plans include using fragrant plants such as honeysuckle and rosemary on one landing, soothing water features on another, and colorful, tactile multi-patterned mosaics throughout. ZTA also plans special handrails with Braille inscriptions and audio buttons to assist the visually impaired with points of reference along the way.

When completed, the expanded building will be home to a master's program in rehabilitation counseling, as well as some of Interwork's potential community partners, including The Access Center and SDSU's Fitness Clinic for Individuals with Disabilities.

ZTA is also literally "breaking new ground" with regard to universal design in the construction of the new 5.9 acre Normal Heights Elementary School. The school, designed from the ground up, takes a difficult site and creates ample and easy circulation paths and play areas.

A radical semi-circular layout of the classroom buildings promotes natural daylight and ventilation in the classrooms, serves as an inviting entryway for the public onto school grounds and creates straightforward intuitive circulation patterns. In addition, each building has its own color palette of tile wainscot and paint accents along with large graphics to differentiate one building from another.

The new school promises to be a modern, aesthetically pleasing addition to the community by creating a gently sloped pedestrian link from the neighborhood through the school property and on to the adjoining 39th Street public park. A plaza and centralized courtyard will serve as a gathering spot for students, another open entryway and a clear point of reference to the campus organization.

Normal Heights Elementary School is expected to be completed in September 2006.

As social architects, universal design inspires us to be more consciously aware of people's needs and make that a part of every design project. Being more inclusive not only serves a building's existing occupants and visitors, but also garners appreciation and kudos for forward-thinking work well into the future.

As part of this ongoing commitment, ZTA recently relocated to a first floor space in North Park. Ironically, a few days after the move, one of ZTA's architects was injured in a slip and fall accident, but was eager to return to work. With the new accessible office space, he can return as soon as he is able. Just goes to show, universal design does make good sense. You never know when you might be the one to encounter barriers.

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