Universal Design in the Built Environment: The Irish Context

Erik Koornneef, Senior Standards Officer, National Disability Authority


In this paper I will describe and review a number of national and international developments aimed at ensuring that the built environment takes account of human difference, enabling everyone to interact with their environment to the best of their ability

In particular I will focus on current developments in Ireland, including the role of the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (CEUD) and the National Disability Authority (NDA).

The NDA is the lead state agency on disability issues, providing independent expert advice to Government on policy and practice. It has three main areas of work: (1) conducting, commissioning and managing research projects, (2) assisting in the development and coordination of policies and (3) advising on standards for programmes and services, preparation of codes of practice and monitor the implementation of standards and codes of practice.

The CEUD has recently been established within the NDA. Its purpose is to facilitate the achievement of excellence in universal design by contributing to the development and promulgation of standards. The main activities of the Centre are (1) to contribute to the development and promotion of standards in Universal Design; (2) to ensure education in and the professional development of Universal Design and (3) to promote public awareness of Universal Design.

It is also important to note the vision of the Centre - the Centre is dedicated to the principle of universal access for people in Ireland to participate in a society that takes account of human difference, enabling everyone to interact with their environment to the best of their ability.

In order to realise this very ambitious vision and to achieve a real and tangible impact, the Centre will have to work in partnership with a large number of stakeholders, including people with disabilities and their representative organisations, education providers, professional bodies (and with this I not only mean the organisations representing professionals such as architects, engineers, planners, occupational therapists, but also organisations representing trades people), industry and public bodies.

This challenge has been well articulated earlier this year by Richard Duncan from the Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University, who stated that 'In its 20-year history in the US, universal design has slowly gained acceptance, but has seen an uneven adoption' (Duncan, 2007). Let's just hope that the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design can learn from the experiences and expertise internationally and I am particularly pleased to be joined here this morning by Richard Duncan.

The aim of this paper to provide more clarity in relation to recent and upcoming work in this area and the potential role of and challenges for the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design.

2. The context of Universal Design

Using the definition of universal design from the Disability Act 2005, I will discuss some of the key challenges and opportunities in relation to the built environment:

2.1 ....may be accessed, understood and used to the greatest practicable extent

The first part of the definition relates to the principle that the design and composition of an environment appeals to everyone, is easily understood, is not unnecessarily complex and can be used by everyone.

2.2 ....in the most independent and natural manner

The second part of the definition highlights the importance of ensuring that the built environment can be used comfortably and efficiently with a minimum physical effort.

2.3 ....in the widest possible range of situations

It is equally important to note that universal design of the built environment applies to all sorts of different situations, including heritage sites, outdoor facilities, road and street design, etc.

2.4 ....without the need for adaptation, modification

In Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the following definition of Universal Design is used:

"Universal Design" means the design of
products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to
the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized
design. "Universal design" shall not exclude assistive devices for
particular groups of persons with disabilities where this is

In other words, although the principle of universal design is to ensure that people are able to use, access and understand the built environment independently and without the need for further assistance, it does not exclude alternative solution, where this is required.

2.5 ....by persons of any age, size or ability

This last part of the definition highlights the importance of equitable use, to ensure that the built environment is designed so that people can use it together, as opposed to segregation and stigmatisation.

2.6 ...ageing and Universal Design

One of the biggest drivers behind universal design is the need to cater for the needs of an ageing population. In 2006, 464,000 people in Ireland were over 65 years of age and just of 2 million people were in employment.

The Irish Pension Board projects that by 2036, this will have changed dramatically with more than 1.1 million people over 65 years of age and 2.2 million in employment.

The findings of the 2006 Census indicate that almost 394,000 persons, representing 9.6% of the total population, had a long lasting health problem or disability. Nearly two-thirds were aged 50 years or over and in the 85 years and over age group almost 60% has a long lasting health problem or disability, as compared to 42% in the 80-84 age group; 31% in the 75-79 years age group and 23% in the 70-74 age group.

3. Current developments

I will now take a quick look at some of the recent developments in Ireland and abroad.

3.1 Review of Part M of the Building Regulations

In 2005 the NDA commissioned Fionnuala Rogerson Architects to review the effectiveness of Part M of the Building Regulations.

The findings show that:

  • Although almost all of the architects who participated in the survey (119) said that they were aware of Part M and the Technical Guidance document, 86% considered that the TGD needed clarification;
  • Almost 90% of the respondents have used the NDA's
    Guidance document - Building for Everyone. However a number of architects
    commented that it was too extensive for quick reference and everyday
  • People with disabilities still experience significant
    difficulties in accessing and using buildings;
  • Problem areas identified include access to buildings from
    the street or car park; entrance doorways and intercoms; internal circulation;
    toilets; audience facilities;
  • Part M mainly addresses the needs of people with mobility impairments, and does not adequately address the problems experienced by people with hearing impairments, vision impairments, or intellectual disabilities.
  • Access from the street/car park, which is dealt with under the planning code rather than Building Regulations, is a significant problem. In a survey of new homes under construction, this was a key factor in the fact that only 4% of new homes were accessible in six schemes surveyed on-site;
  • Accessibility is frequently not part of the project brief
    for architects, and a significant minority of architects do not consider access
    issues at the pre-planning stage;
  • Inspection and enforcement of Part M is poor, and architects do not routinely self-audit buildings against Part M.

3.2 National Standards Authority of Ireland (NSAI)

Last year the NSAI established the Accessibility for All Committee to advise the NSAI in relation to the need for national standards, to contribute to the development of European and International standards and to provide a resource to other NSAI Committees.

The Committee meets about 4 times a year and recent work has included:

  • Contributing to the development of an International
    Standard on Accessibility of the Built Environment (ISO CD 21542);
  • Supporting European Accessibility Requirement for Public
    Procurement Services in the ICT Domain (CEN Mandate M/376);
  • Advising on the review and development of standards in
    the area of Technical Aids for people with disabilities

3.3 National Disability Strategy

The National Disability Strategy which was launched in 2005 by the Irish Government, contains a number of positive action measures aimed at ensuring that people with disabilities are included in all aspects of social, cultural and economic life. These measures include:

  • Disability Act 2005, including the establishment of the
    Centre for Excellence in Universal Design and the NDA Code of Practice on
    Accessible Public Services and Information provided by Public Bodies
  • Sectoral Plans by 6 Government Departments, including the
    Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government who have made a
    commitment to review and revise of Part M of the Building
  • Under section 25 of the Disability Act 2005, all public
    buildings have to be in compliance with Part M by 2015. Certain exemptions can
    by made by Ministerial Order, for example if buildings are used

3.4 International Developments

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Disability (2006) found just over half of all the countries that participated in its survey (n=128) have developed legislation or standards dealing aimed at improving the accessibility of the built environment.

ISO TC 159/SC 16 is currently developing an International Standard on the Accessibility of the Built Environment - ISO CD 21542. NDA is playing an active role on the ISO Working Group which is currently drafting a new standard.

Other recent developments include:

  • A Global Review of Best Practices in Universal Design
    commissioned by the Canadian Human Rights Commission (2006),
  • An ISO Report (2006) on Ergonomic data and ergonomic
    guidelines to address the needs of older persons and persons with disabilities,
  • An ANEC commissioned review of the state of knowledge
    regarding the safety, access and usability needs of children with
  • The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity
    Commission's review of access to buildings and services for people with
    disabilities, aptly titled: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Design and
    Construction for Access
  • The UK Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (2006) report
    for signage and wayfinding for people with learning difficulties and
  • The UK Department of Transport (2006) Survey of Occupied

4. Challenges and solutions

I will now highlight some of the key challenges and solutions in relation to a number of different elements of the design of the built environment.

4.1 Entrances

It is crucially important to ensure that visual indicators are located at the appropriate height above the finished floor, that they cover the full width of the door, with an appropriate luminance contrast. In many instances, visual indicators are not provided or they only cover part of the door entrance.

4.2 Door handles

Something as simple as a door handle can pose a challenge for builders, interior designers and others. From a universal design perspective the preferred type of door handle is the "D" type lever handle, as it allows a person to operate the latch mechanism with minimal effort. The return on the "D" type lever handle keeps the hand from slipping off the lever and assists in opening the door when being pulled open.

4.3 Hand rails

Another example of a key feature in the built environment is the design of hand rails. From a universal design perspective, the ends of hand rails should terminated by returning to a side wall or downwards on to a post or by returning back 180 degrees on themselves. Other important criteria include the diameter of the hand rails and the width between hand rails.

4.4 Sanitary facilities

In the design of toilets it is important to address two issues from a universal design perspective: the circulation spaces and reach ranges. Without adequate circulation and correct placement of components, many people will be unable to use the facility.

4.5 Signage

The design and use of signage (or lack of signage) outside and inside a building is often ignored and we can all think of examples of poorly designed signs that are illegible, unclear, use new symbols or are located at an inappropriate height.

5. Next steps

I will conclude my paper by looking at the main challenges for the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design in achieving their vision of an inclusive, enabling and equal society, by looking at the three main areas of work.

5.1 Standards and guidance

There are numerous opportunities for the Centre to get involved in the development of standards and guidance, most importantly through the existing partnerships with international and national standards bodies. In order to strengthen and foster these relationships, the Centre could undertake the following activities:

  • Establish a compendium/database of standards
  • Conduct and commission further research in particular
    areas, such as use of signage, wayfinding, and other aspects of the built
  • Develop guidance in particular areas covering a range of
    diverse topics, such as lifetime adaptable housing and tourism
  • Recognise the achievement of excellence through national
    design awards

5.2 Promotion and awareness raising

The potential for an uneven adoption of universal design which I mentioned earlier can most effectively be tackled by a comprehensive awareness raising programme, including:

  • Campaigns targeted at particular stakeholders, for
    example tradesmen, interior designer, landscape gardeners, etc.
  • Ensuring that universal design becomes a key governmental
    strategy on par with other key developments, such as sustainable
  • Conduct further research into the impact of different
    promotion strategies
  • Form creative partnerships with design

5.3 Education and training

Education is a powerful tool in achieving change and the Centre needs to focus a lot of its work and attention on working in partnership with education and training providers, certifying bodies, as well as students and professional bodies, to ensure that:

  • Specialist training course in universal design are
    developed and delivered
  • Universal design becomes a key part of the curriculum of
    mainstream education, including architecture, engineering, design
  • Professionals are encouraged to take part in Continued
    Professional Development courses on universal design.

Finally, in my opinion, the Centre will only ever become successful when it is able to mobilise and energise people to rally behind the idea of universal design. The Centre should therefore look at other major groundbreaking concepts, such as sustainable development. Universal design affects all our lives. However, only a limited number of people will initially recognise the benefits of universal design. The biggest challenge for the Centre will be to convince people of the benefits universal design will make to their everyday lives.


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