Ahead of the Universal Design Conference in Sydney 30-31 August, Nicholas Loder investigates how Universal Design is in essence sustainable design.

Sustainability, particularly addressed through energy and water systems in commercial and residential development, is at the forefront of reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, to reduce the impacts of climate change on our lives, and on the planet.

Wanting a better world for ourselves and future generations through better development is a logical reaction for people, especially design professionals who care for the world and humanity. But this care needn’t stop there or remain in the abstract. We are dealing with people, some rich, most poor, some oppressed, some free. And some with a disability. Design needs to recognise all actors, all bodies, as valid and included in our design approaches.

Architects and planners already recognise the value of design. Some of these values go to the heart of caring and commercial realities. Poor design means the produced artefact is shunned, or not used, or only infrequently and begrudgingly occupied.

The following quotes relate to good design, and I would contend good design leads to great sustainability:

“The difference between good and bad architecture is how long you stay in it.” – David Chipperfield.

“Good design enables honest and effective engagement with the world.” – Robert Grudin, Design and Truth, 2010.

“If you create buildings that are worse for people to live, work and walk in, [the design] has failed … all projects have to give ‘that sense of inclusiveness’.” – Ian Lomas from Make (UK), profiled in The Fifth Estate.

We have enshrined in our National Construction Code the principles of the Disability Discrimination Act as developed in meeting our requirements to the UNHRC and through this access to public areas are able to be accessed by those in the general public with a disability, with dignity.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, disability discrimination occurs when “people with a disability are treated less fairly than people without a disability … [and] when people are treated less fairly because they are relatives, friends, carers, co-workers or associates of a person with a disability”.

Designs are sustainable when all users are acknowledged and designed for – not just for those with physical disability, but access to websites and audio cues for those with a vision disability, and audio loops for those with a hearing disability.

These are the more obvious approaches. What about private housing allowing step free access and room at the front door to move furniture, take a pram through or allow space for bags, books and bikes after a visit to the park? Or allows a grandparent to move from the car into the house easily? This is design for everybody. This is Universal Design.

How does UD contribute to sustainability? Because developments following these principles allow and accommodate the needs for everybody without fuss, with dignity, and introduce care into the equation. Designs are easy for people to navigate through, the tired traveller can find the platform or departure gate easily, noise is not distracting, glare is controlled, elevators, toilets and change rooms are easy to find.

The building, retail centre, hospital is sustainable because costly retrofits are eliminated. People appreciate the ease they experience in moving around and through it. It is a pleasure to stay, it is caring, it recognises a range of human capabilities. And they return – and retailers and tourist operators bank on it.

Why is UD still needed now we have access provisions in our National Construction Codes? Because we are still failing to design for everyone.

As Jos Boys says in the book Doing Disability Differently, “Despite many years of campaigning and design effort, the built environment continues to be often inaccessible to disabled people … the result of the underlying common sense conceptual frameworks we all use to think about disability, ability, occupancies and material space.”

In other words, our design education needs help in thinking about those unthought-of-before users of spaces.

But there is cause to be optimistic. For example, Lendlease’s Barangaroo South precinct has incorporated “Design for Dignity” guidelines that address our “ableist bias”.

“The challenge however is how we, as developers, designers, builders, asset owners and managers can best shift our own ‘ableist’ bias to integrate into the design and operation phases, a more inclusive view of how people of all abilities access and engage with place, and most importantly, how they can do so seamlessly with equity and dignity,” the guidelines state.

“Thank you very much” was what Jorn Utzon was reported as saying on hearing of the World Heritage listing for the Sydney Opera House, and people with a disability are saying exactly the same thing when a building or a site they need to participate in has included their capabilities in the design approach. Buildings designed for everyone are truly sustainable.

Nicholas Loder is a non-executive director of the Centre for Universal Design Australia.

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  1. Hi Nicholas, thanks for article and your observations which I agree with.

    Caring for our environment and caring for each other are in many ways both the starting and end points and if we make this a priority we need to use good design and development practices to help us achieve this.

    Integrating universal design principles into a design is so important as it considers and acknowledges the range of people that will use, benefit and enjoy it. UD is sometimes overlooked when we consider sustainability practices and outcomes, yet as you point out they are so interrelated and both integral to good design.

  2. Good article Nick – it explains that UD is not just about disability and ageing and specialised designs just for “them”. It is designing for ALL of us. UD also covers industrial design and ICT – the next steps…

  3. Thanks Nicholas for continuing the discussion into the mainstream. It has been a long road to get universal/livable housing as a focal point of good design. I agree with you that sustainable and livable design are intrinsically linked. By embracing sustainable design principles in homes they provide a comfortable home for its occupants and reduce our impact on the environment for years to come. So too by designing for future occupancy needs, comfort and equality we achieve much more versatile and inclusive housing stock. Homes with these design principles, whilst offering comfort to the occupants are less likely to be exposed to the housing churn and demolition process. And in so doing we are locking up their material asset impact for many decades. At Green Design Solutions we couple these design principles together for housing design and have the conversation with clients on exactly these linkages. And it is great to see many people consider house design in this way. Every discussion and policy change helps to move this info mainstream design which is where it is needed. Thank you

  4. Nicholas
    A great piece of thinking, thank you. It is Grocon’s view that the sustainability of accessibility and universal design can be found in the removal of the need for extensive, costly and wasteful remodelling of spaces that have been badly designed and that this is as much, if not more important for residential as it is for commercial, health and retail spaces. Livable Housing Guidelines are a great start but extending thinking to include Changing Places and environmental accessibility are also good places to think about. Anyway, thanks for the thinking

    David Waldren
    Head of Culture & Innovation