Disability inclusion in the built environment is extremely important. But, it shouldn’t end there. How do we ensure that we are being truly inclusive of all types of people, taking into account a wider diversity of backgrounds, orientations, and abilities? The answer is Universal Design.
On this episode of Building’s + Beyond, Robb chats with former SWA employee and Universal Design expert, Victoria Lanteigne. Victoria has devoted her career to the advancement of Universal Design, educating herself and others on the concept and its limitless applications. In her interview, she discusses trends, tactics, and examples from the field, and challenges practitioners to re-think their definition of the word, design.
Episode Guest: Victoria Lanteigne, MPP, WELL AP
Victoria Lanteigne is a Universal Design subject matter expert with over 15 years of experience leading inclusive design initiatives. She is passionate about elevating the connection between Universal Design and high-performance building initiatives, including sustainability and health, and has spoken on this topic at Greenbuild, the AIA National Convention, and Design DC, among others. Victoria is a WELL AP and WELL Faculty member and has served as a WELL Community Concept Advisor since 2017. She has a BA from Michigan State University, a Master of Public Policy from the George Washington University, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Design from North Carolina State University.
Episode Information & Resources
Articles written by Victoria on Universal and Inclusive Design:
- The Post-Pandemic Workplace Could Be the Most Inclusive Workplace We’ve Ever Designed – FOX Architects
- Universal Design: A tool for creating equitable spaces after COVID-19 | Articles | WELL International WELL Building Institute
Previous Podcast Episodes on Universal Design:
- Universal Design with Mary Jo Peterson
- Universal Design and Accessibility in Mexico City with Luis Quintana
- Universal Design Principles Published in New WELL Building Standard (WELL v2)
- Eight Goals of Universal Design
- Human Rights Watch – SWA Project including Universal Design consulting services
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About Buildings and Beyond
Buildings and Beyond is a production of Steven Winter Associates. We provide energy, green building, and accessibility consulting services to improve the built environment. For more information, visit www.swinter.com.
Welcome to buildings and beyond.
The podcast that explores how we can create a more sustainable built environment
By focusing on efficiency, accessibility, and health.
I’m Robb Aldrich,
And I’m Kelly Westby.
In this episode, I spoke with Victoria Lanteigne, and we talked about universal design, really how universal design might improve equity and inclusion in the built environment. Here’s Victoria saying a little bit about her background.
So I have been working in the field of accessibility and universal design for quite some time. I’d say about 15 years, and I come to this field with a little bit of a different background or perspective. I actually have a background in public policy and I started off my career working in disability policy with a civil rights organization, specifically working to lead a consortium of multifamily housing developers to provide guidance on federal accessibility regulations, as well as state and local accessibility codes. And I learned very quickly that the federal laws that we have in place are really addressing accessibility from a pretty minimal standpoint. So almost looking at inclusion and accessibility from a bare minimum. So I became really interested in universal design as a tool and a methodology to go above and beyond what was required by our federal laws and codes.
We talked about the roots of universal design being in accessibility or disability inclusion, but many people, and certainly Victoria among them, have lofty goals for universal design. Victoria just started a PhD program at North Carolina state university. And her goal there is to research how universal design can improve equity and inclusion beyond just disability inclusion. Universal design can be a big topic and we started discussing some basic definitions, but we quickly got into how those definitions are evolving.
There’s a lot of schools of thought around universal design. For me, I, I do of course acknowledge the origin and the roots universal design has with disability inclusion. You know, initially it was defined as a an effort to create products and spaces to be usable by the greatest number of people possible regardless of age ability or individual status. So even in its origin, universal design was really focused on comprehensive inclusion, but when we looked at universal design and practice, it was often centered on disability inclusion. And I think that’s really important. And I always like to take a minute to acknowledge how important disability inclusion is and why it’s so important. You know, when we look at the number of people living with disabilities worldwide, the number is 15%, here in the U S we have 61 million Americans living with disabilities. And if we hone in on that number, one in four adults today is living with some form of disability. So yeah, the numbers are really quite staggering and the numbers are only increasing. And I think it’s really looking at the fact that we have a broad definition of disability. So the Americans with disabilities act defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. When you have such a broad definition, we are of course talking about mobility and sensory disabilities, but we’re also expanding this to look at intellectual disabilities, cognitive disabilities, mental and emotional health. So things like anxiety, depression are all considered to be disabilities under the law. And as this definition of disability broadens, there are more people identifying as living with a disability. And some of that stigma is going away, which it should be, and that’s important, but universal design, you know, as you were saying, is very different from accessible design in the sense that it allowed this space to address disability from a more comprehensive approach, as opposed to focusing on the bare minimum structural compliance piece of accommodating wheelchair users, which is largely what our laws are centered around.
Yeah. And I think that’s a lot of what people think. That’s what I used to think. You know, accessibility means, you know, ramps and turning radiuses and, you know, things like that. I read the links that you sent me, some articles which we’ll link to in the show notes. And I went through and just kind of tried to pick out all the different types of ability inclusion. First of all, it’s not just physical, and it’s many types of physical, but like you were saying emotional sensory, which I guess sensory is a subset of physical, but vision and auditory and mental and neuro-diversity. And I think you mentioned nerve diversity refers to people on the autism spectrum primarily. And so this is so much more than just people and wheelchair access. It’s, it’s so much more, which I think is lost on quite a few people.
I agree. And I think this is really the, the heart of how accessible design differs from universal design. And for those of us that are either practitioners or we look at these two concepts from a policy lens, whatever brings you to focus on these different design strategies, we understand kind of the nuance difference, but it’s hard for those that may not be working in close to this on a daily basis. But to me, accessible design is really talking about compliance. It’s that piece around our federal laws, building codes. It’s very prescriptive in nature. You know, we’re talking about an inch here, a quarter inch there, a bevel, you know, things that are not a lot of room for tolerance. There’s a very low design opportunity. So, you know, you either follow it and you comply or you don’t. And again, that accessible piece is largely based on accommodating mobility disabilities. So I often like to think about accessible design is what we must have. It’s the baseline bare minimum. And on the other side, we have universal design, which is not regulated. And because of that, the guidance can be very limited and or conflicting. We’ve got a lot of decentralized places where universal design guidance comes from, but on the flip side, universal design is not prescriptive. So there’s a huge opportunity for how to implement universal design. What universal design can look like in practice, and this is really where the opportunity to become inclusive of, of disability, but then inclusive beyond disability as well. So I like to look at universal design is what we could have as opposed to what we must have. It’s a design goal, it’s a strategy. And it, it takes a lot of collaboration and innovation to really get it, get it right to where it could be. I’m looking at universal design as a tool to explore how we can bring more equity into design and by doing so, how we can advance equity through the design of the built environment. And, you know, when we think about the origin of universal design being rooted in disability inclusion, we also can look to more contemporary definitions of universal design. One that I particularly subscribe to is a process enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human performance, health, and wellness and social participation. So this is a definition that comes from the idea center out of the university of Buffalo. And when we think about these goals around universal design, that center on performance, health, social participation, these goals mirror a lot of the goals that building performance initiatives have around sustainability around healthy buildings. So this really begins to position universal design in a way that can begin to address aspects of civil rights issues across the board, further kind of digging deeper into this definition. The university of Buffalo Idea center came out with eight goals around universal design. And around these goals, we have a lot of opportunity to begin to build out design strategies that start to address equity. And as a couple of examples, you know, some of the goals are, are talking about things that maybe already are part of universal design, so comfort and body fit things like ergonomics, right? Size and space shapes, clear floor space, but can we take it beyond that to start thinking about visual ergonomics, audio ergonomics, physical ergonomics. So really thinking about that next step understanding and awareness are two additional goals. So here wayfinding and spaces become critical perceptible information as well. So having information that is understandable from multiple aspects. So again, thinking about the fact that we might come to a problem from different experiences and with different ways of solving that problem. And as an example, in our prep call, we were talking about Ikea directions, right? Love them or hate them, they’re kind of like this example of, of universal design in a way, because the man with the hammer is going to be the man with the hammer, no matter what country you’re in. Right. and so that ability to kind of pick up and look at those directions and find them to be user intuitive is, is an example of that. But then let’s think about how we can build on that even more. So can we have the same definitions be available on an audio recording so that somebody that has vision can listen to that on an audio tape? Can we have the manual that also has tasks broken out based on children’s involvement and parents involvement to get, you know, the whole family involved? Can we think about ways that make this experience even more inclusive depending on who’s approaching the problem and the different ways that you have to solve a problem?
I recently helped some some friends colleagues who were moving into a new home, I helped them move in and they asked me to assemble some of their kitchen cabinets. And I haven’t felt so incompetent in a long time. I was stymied by putting together all these cabinets by all the instructions. There’s no text anywhere in the instructions and I appreciate that’s to be language neutral. But I couldn’t, I couldn’t do it. One fitting had three holes and I didn’t realize it had three holes and I used two of the holes, but I was supposed to use a different one of the hole. And it wasn’t clear to me from looking at the pictures, it was an attempt to be certainly more inclusive, but I found it infuriating.
And I guess it’s a question in my mind. I mean, we’re, we’re talking about being inclusive of all these different people with disabilities and also beyond disabilities, you know age and gender and religion and language, do you have to start sacrificing? Can you please everybody, well, maybe not necessarily, but is there, is there a give and take, do you see kind of sacrifices with, you know, certain elements, and is it kind of a balancing act for designers or consultants or people implementing these strategies?
I look at universal design as a design strategy. So it’s not a template it’s never going to be the same across every project. I think what we need to move more towards is a collaborative approach to creating spaces that reflect the context and environment that that project is based in. I think it’s about really thinking about the users who’s using the space, what’s the function of the space and how can we kind of go through and accommodate as strategically as we can, the different ways that people will be impacted by an experiencing this space. So I think it’s different with every project. And I think this is where the challenge with universal design can come. It’s not about more, is always better. It’s really about choosing your strategy around inclusion,
And it’s not, it’s not prescriptive, like you said. It’s not kind of checking boxes. It’s really trying to be mindful and maybe artful in being as inclusive as possible.
That’s exactly right. And so thinking about creating a community center in maybe an underserved area, that approach to inclusion is going to be very different than embedding universal design in an international airport. Right. So I think that, and I think that’s okay. And I think that’s how it should be. I think that when we have guiding principles that are built out in a way that provokes thought and innovation from designers and their collaborators, that’s what we really want. That’s the space that we want to get to with universal design. So not, you must implement this in every situation. It’s, Hey, have you thought about how you’re going to account for cultural diversity in this project? Here are some options. This is what’s worked, figure out together how that can best be reflected in your project.
So is that kind of, part of the research that you’re planning, is to evaluate strategies or approaches how well they work in different situations?
A little bit. Yeah. I mean, I say this I’m kind of laughing because I’m what seven weeks into my first semester. So it’ll be really interesting to revisit this three years from now and see how aligned I am with where I say I’m going to be. But, you know, going back to the gaps that exist around universal design, there are a lot of them, primarily as one that you’ve mentioned, which is people associate universal design with disability inclusion. And I think that that should always remain. I always want to be very clear about that. That should always remain a central tenant of universal design. However, how can we continue to hold that space for disability inclusion and use universal as a framework to start addressing equity and design for equity in a more broad manner. And so what I would like to do through my research is a kind of a gigantic literature review of all of the universal design guidelines, strategies, legislation that exists across the world and find out where we are. Who’s practicing universal design from the standpoint of disability inclusion, who’s pushing the envelope. Where are those pushes coming from? Are they coming from practitioners? Are they coming from academia? Are they coming from case studies, legislators, who’s really holding space for universal design in different ways. And then how can we identify indicators within the built environment that will help practitioners understand what designing for equity looks like and what that means? Because from my research, at least, you know, we do have building standards that exist that talk about equity and that address equity. I think we’ve made a lot of stride. I also think a lot of what exists is focused on programming, affordability, operations. There’s not a lot that really talks about design strategies. And so what I’m really interested in doing is pulling out what those indicators are, how we measure, how design of the built environment impacts equity and putting that in some kind of manner or format to be helpful for practitioners to do this implementation.
Yeah. Like just a relatable framework or context.
That’s exactly right. Some of these avenues might look at gender and gender identity and how the built environment addresses gender as an example, all gender restrooms, right? So this is an example of a restroom that serves the same purpose for everyone, regardless of your gender identity. And so thinking about about strategies like that, that can start to really look at full, comprehensive inclusion.
Would that freak some people out or be off-putting? I think maybe, depending on how you do it
I mean, it will. I think that whenever we’re talking about a topic of inclusion, equity, there will be some supporters and advocates and will be some that pushback. That’s just the political nature of this type of conversation. And so I think the goal is to create spaces that again are not solely accommodating to a specific population, but it’s creating flexible, usable spaces that are inclusive of all. And so, as an example, creating an all gendered restroom that has privacy, you know, partitions, or here in DC, we see a lot of kind of the individual single user restrooms that have you know, door that you can close for full privacy. And then in the common area is like a hand-washing station. So it does offer a level of privacy and quite honestly, I mean, people don’t even think twice about it.
Yeah. I’m thinking of college. I’m thinking in some dorms in college, it was just everybody on the floor just decided they didn’t care. Anybody could use any of the bathrooms. So it was non-gendered and then other dorms, some people did care. And then, you know, you had to walk down the hall to the, to the men’s room or the women’s room.
Yeah. I think that’s an example of not having it embedded as a design strategy. So that’s, that’s the backing into inclusion. That’s not putting inclusion in as part of the onset strategy. And as a great example, we were, I was just speaking about this, you know, some of the office buildings here in DC, the organizations that have more of like this ethos around inclusion and equity, a lot of them are creating all gender non-gendered restrooms and, you know, rather than do it thoughtfully, they pick the restroom. That’s the least used on some obscure floor. They put a sign up that says, you know, it’s handwritten and it’s like all gender restrooms. Well, that’s not, that’s not a universal design strategy. Right. That’s, that’s taking the easy way out. And that is not what we, that’s what we cannot be doing moving forward.
And on that note, we’ve seen a lot of, particularly when I was working with Steven winter associates and working on Peter’s team, we had clients that were interested in pursuing universal design because somebody was joining the organization that had a disability. Right. So that was the motivator. It was like, Oh, no, we’re not accessible. We’re not ready for this. Can you come in and can you kind of help us prepare any motivation to incorporate inclusion is welcome and it’s certainly supported, and we want to support that, yet it’s still not the same as embedding universal design at the onset as part of that design strategy. And that comes as early as concept development. You know, I mean, teams that I’ve worked with, I tell them, bring me, bring me along on the interview. Right. Let’s talk about this and embed it with the client’s vision of this space. So those are two very different approaches.
Yeah, yeah. Gotcha. How about wayfinding? I mean, wayfinding is a big deal, certainly for disability inclusion for visual or language. Are there strategies to be more inclusive beyond disability inclusion for, for wayfinding?
Absolutely. Wayfinding, I think is a huge component of universal design. It’s also just a lot of universal design or just really smart design strategies. So you see a lot of overlap and I think that’s that’s okay. And wayfinding is, is something that I find endlessly fascinating. And in fact, I have a good friend, who’s a wayfinding strategist, and she always says, it’s frustrating because when I’ve done my job well, nobody knows that I’ve done my job, right. And it’s this element of having these really smart strategies embedded in the way users navigate space. And so this is incredibly important for people with disabilities. It’s also incredibly important in general, for anyone navigating this space, good wayfinding reduces anxiety. It reduces you know, kind of the stress of navigating spaces that may otherwise be stressful. So it’s used really artfully in public transportation and airports, places that are high volume and high stress, wayfinding becomes critical. It’s also really important when, you know, we’re thinking of serving a global or international population where English, let’s say in the U S English might not be someone’s primary language. So how we have symbols or images that will relay the information that’s relevant and important to relay so way finding becomes just incredibly important, I think for everyone. And that’s why it’s a great example of universal design.
Gotcha. Yeah, that’s true. Reducing stress, reducing anxiety. We’ve all been racing for connections or just, you know, lost in a train station trying to find the right platform. Yeah. It’s it’s no fun.
I still never understand how the A,C and E go to different stops on the New York subway. Like why and how do I know which one’s going, where I don’t get it, It’s very stressful.
Until you know it until you know what you’re doing. Yeah, yeah. I can, I can totally see that. Absolutely. Gosh, any other kind of cool examples for universal design beyond disability inclusion?
Yeah. The one one more I’ll mention, and again, this relates to the eight goals of, of universal design that came out of the idea center is cultural appropriateness. And I think there is so much room here to start thinking about how we address culture and cultural identity through the built environment, you know, particularly again, I, I mentioned really understanding the context that your project is is within, but then also this opportunity to really when it, when it fits to bring in the community as part of this approach to, to co-design or participatory design. And in, in my opinion, and I may be biased because I’m a non-designer, but I do believe that in order to get equity, right, we have to have an interdisciplinary approach. And that means having designers, architects, maybe policy makers, community activists, community members, the list goes on and on. We can’t expect to tackle such a broad and important topic like equity within one discipline. And so here’s really where this is asking, I think a lot of the way designers and architects work, which is we have to have more people weighing in on the design process. And that is something I’m really excited about continuing to build out through, through my work with project teams.
Cool. Yeah. So I guess looking ahead big picture, looking down the road, what is your end goal? You know, universal design, isn’t prescriptive by its very nature, so codes or standards for universal design seem like they wouldn’t apply. So I guess, is it just a raised awareness? Is it just better examples? In five or 10 years, what would you like to see happening as, as more regular practice for design of all types of buildings or spaces or communities?
Sure. Yeah, I think, I mean, beyond the goal of getting through this PhD program in one piece and really coming out of it with solidified research around what designing for equity means in a tangible manner. So beyond that, I really want to bring this research back to both practitioners, but also to policy makers. My goal is not to codify universal design. I don’t think that will work. And I don’t think that is aligned with the spirit and intent of this methodology, right? I think rather it’s raising awareness and really using universal design as a framework to talk about how we can bring more equity into design, and then thinking about how we develop legislation that supports the exploration of how we can continue to do this in a more consistent manner. And by that, I mean, can we get some legislation passed? That requires us to look at how we address the design process to incorporate equity and inclusion as an example, and you know, other countries are doing this, it should be no surprise that the U S is a little bit behind on this, but, you know, we’ve got Norway which has committed to achieving universal design by 2025. In Europe, the the council on European initiatives have signed on to advance universal design. And so these are steps that governments have taken not to codify universal design, but to show support and to, to begin to earmark budgets, to begin to have the conversation. And each of these governments are working on building out what a universal design approach means within, within their jurisdiction and how that can be implemented. So certainly here in the U S that would be a goal. I think probably it would be more realistic to start with a1 local jurisdiction. New York city itself has been quite active around universal design. It’s really, probably one of the, the city has probably one of the most comprehensive set of documents that guide practitioners around universal design, which is really exciting. So it’s not required by law, but the government agencies in New York city have developed these types of standards and guidelines. So we’re seeing some movement but I’d like to see more.
Yeah. What could legislation do to, I guess, require universal design, which by its nature is not standardized or prescriptive?
A lot of universities are doing this. A lot of universities will have within their building code or, you know, design and construction mandate, whatever they are calling it. They will have a requirement to comply with universal design principles, and then they will have the seven principles of universal design that kind of are these high level governing, you know, ways of thinking about design. So flexible use intuitive perceptible information size and fit these very general concepts. So that is a way that universal design can be kind of mandated, but the act of implementing it is left to the design team. And I think, again, it’s about raising that awareness around strategies that exist and thinking about it in an innovative way, that makes sense for your project within the context that it’s in. And I feel like there’s just so much room to grow with universal design, where we are going to be a week from now is going to be a completely different space 10 or 15 years from now, but we have to start somewhere.
Yeah that’s that makes sense. That makes sense. It’s my engineer brain wants some hard and fast things, but even, even just requiring consideration or even some kind of documentation that look, you’ve considered this, how have you considered universal design in this project? That in and of itself can be very, can be very useful.
Well, you know so the WELL building standard version two has now a feature focused on accessibility and universal design and LEED version four, as I’m sure, you know, has the social equity pilot credits that has an inclusive design credit, right? So we’re seeing this connect with building performance measures, which is really exciting. I think that’s critical that we’re understanding the link between inclusion and building performance. And so, you know, and I worked very closely with the folks at international well building Institute, I actually was involved with developing that feature. So the question that they ask me a lot is how, okay, the project team wants to know how they would know if they did universal design. And then, and then the second, the second question is how do they know if somebody is a universal design expert, right. And, you know, there are rating systems around universal design. I think that’s probably a strong word for what exists. There, there are a few that, that are kind of just becoming to gain popularity on the market. In my opinion, they don’t really stretch universal design to these other aspects of inclusion. So it lies mostly in disability inclusion again, which is important. So I am really interested in seeing how that could expand. And, and that is a challenge. So I think awareness is key here that, you know, it would be my, my dream to go in and speak with a group of architects. And for them to understand that there is no right or wrong way to implement universal design. It’s not either you did it, or you didn’t, it’s really about thinking and problem solving and using the built environment to support human performance, regardless of your ability or background, you know, who you identify or how you identify. And for that, I think we’ve got a long way to go.
Yeah. Yeah. I agree, the ball is rolling, I think, and it’ll be interesting to check in in a few years and see where we’ve come on this.
Yeah. If you would’ve asked me two years ago, if I would be in a PhD program researching this, I would have laughed and maybe said no way, I’m done learning. But yeah, I, I mean, I have such a conviction that design and the built environment can impact aspects of equity. And so I really want to work at drawing out what those aspects are, putting some parameters around them and getting it back into the hands of practitioners.
Awesome. Good luck.
Thank you. I’ll need that.
Thanks to Victoria. She sent us several links for more information. So certainly check those out on our show notes page, if you are so inclined switcher.com/podcasts, that’s S, winter.com/podcast buildings and beyond is produced by Steven winter associates, where we are focused on making buildings better accessibility and universal design are certainly among the services we offer also efficiency, healthy buildings, sustainable buildings, resilient buildings. Check us out swinter.com and please check out our careers page. If you are looking for three, or you have openings in all of our offices New York, DC, Connecticut, and Boston. Thanks again to Victoria. And thanks to the podcast team here at SWA Heather Breslin. Alex Mirabile, Jayd Alvarez. Dylan Martello Kelly Westby, and I, Robb Aldrich. Thanks.