The Old Well gets ADA-accessible Face Lift

Long time readers may know that my blood runs Carolina Blue.  As a double Tar Heel and a Chapel Hill resident, I’ve seen the Old Well, the symbolic center/emblem of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for many years.

The Old Well, before the renovation, (c) Kelly.arch3, CC by SA 4.0 via Wikimedia

Today, she’s sporting a new look:  an ADA accessible look.  UNC reported yesterday that it has completed its project to make the Old Well accessible to those in wheel chairs through a ramp project that has been artfully integrated into the area.

The adaption looks like it was always part of the original plan, and, far from being an eye sore, looks pretty spiffy.

Read about the renovation and see the new Old Well (an oxymoron?) and see the construction and finished project by clicking here.

Thoughts on the design?  Do you agree or disagree that it looks intentional and not out of place?  Share below in the comments, or drop me  a note.


Not so Universal Design Fails (guest post)

ADA ramp problems

Today we have a guest post from Carla Williams, who works in customer service for the Williams Brothers Corporation of America.   Carla humorously brings light to a serious problem– the intent behind ADA and Universal Design is very often not met with poorly-thought out applications in the real world.  Enjoy, and feel free to leave a comment for Carla below. 

Universal design is the idea that architecture should be inherently accessible to everyone. The growing number of architects adopting universal design is great news for people with accessibility needs. Instead of having separate entrances and walkways to make a building accessible, universal design allows people of all abilities to move together.

Unfortunately, many buildings are stuck back in 1990 right after the Americans with Disabilities Act was made law. These buildings may be technically “accessible,” but they aren’t spaces people with accessibility needs can maneuver very easily.  Until all building designers come to understand and implement the beauty and functionality of universal design, the world is left with less than ideal accessibility. “Less than ideal” is a bit of an understatement. Many times full-on “accessibility fails” take place.

We’ve taken the liberty of rounding up some of the most hilarious accessibility fails on the internet. These places are not only clueless about universal design, but they completely miss the whole accessibility thing by a long shot. Enjoy!

1.     A very useful ramp completely blocked by a giant flower pot. A very useful ramp indeed.

ADA ramp fail

Here we see a lack of understanding on the part of whoever dragged that flower pot out onto the ramp. Someone in a wheelchair might be able to use the ramp otherwise, but with the huge barrel of flowers sitting in the middle of it? Good luck trying to navigate around that thing into the building.

(Image source)




2.  The only requirement to use the ramp is the ability to climb stairs.

Ramp fail 3

Here is an example of something you may have thought impossible: a non-accessible accessible entrance. There is actually a ramp there, which is the accessible entrance into the building. The only problem is the ramp begins with a set of stairs. Stairs, according to the ADA and anyone with common sense, are non-accessible. So the ramp itself is non-accessible, making it a non-accessible accessible entrance.

(Image source)



3.     Sure, you can reach 8 feet away for toilet paper, right?

Toilet roll fail

This accessible stall is nice and wide for easy maneuvering. There is a great big spot to park your chair or walker, if that’s what you use. It’s just that the great big parking space is between you and the toilet paper once you are… situated. Let’s hope the owner of this building realizes the problem and bothers to install a TP dispenser anywhere within arm’s reach of the toilet like a considerate human being.

(Image source)



4.     Is this a wheelchair ramp or a roller coaster?Ramp roller coaster

That’s a very steep staircase and definitely not accessible, so it makes sense someone would see the need for an alternative entrance into the building. Maybe whoever installed it thought painting this “ramp” blue and slapping on an accessibility sign would make it useful to someone who needed an alternative to the stairs. The only problem is no one could even safely walk down this super slide, let alone take on the slope in a wheelchair.

(Image source)





5.     “Please ask at counter.” You know, the counter you can’t get to.

Ramp available ask at counter

Not all buildings were able or even required to meet ADA standards before 1990, and so the owners of these buildings try to accommodate their guests with accessibility needs in other ways. Yet in this case, despite good intentions, someone just wasn’t thinking it through. Great, you offer a ramp. A ramp which is only available at the counter… which is beyond the stairs. The stairs that someone with accessibility needs can’t ascend without a ramp.

(Image source)



Friends Don’t Let Friends Have Accessibility Fails

Cobbling together an accessibility solution is never as good as making a building permanently and sensibly accessible to all people. Even better, planning out a building with universal design in mind allows for better integration of accessibility needs while maintaining the design concept of a given space. Mandatory universal design would at least make ramps with stairs and stairwell superslides far less common.

Thanks Carla for your light-hearted, education post.  Thoughts/comments?  Have your own photo of an ADA or Universal Design fail?  Share below.

Tues Tip: Prepare for new ADA Standards

ADA sign   The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) has been a standard in construction since its was signed into law by President George   H.W. Bush in 1990.  However, there are significant new changes coming, thanks to a new Department of Justice Rule and Standards.  The new Rule becomes effective in a little over two months– on March 15, 2011.  The new Standards are not mandatory until next year (March 15, 2012).  Buildings can currently be constructed to meet either the current or the 2010 Standards; however, the 2010 Standards will become mandatory next year.

According to the Department of Justice, some of the changes that design for new construction will need to accommodate include:

1. Reach Range Requirements (Section 308)

The reach range requirements have been changed to provide that the side reach range must now be no higher than 48 inches (instead of 54 inches) and no lower than 15 inches (instead of 9 inches). The side reach requirements apply to operable parts on accessible elements, to elements located on accessible routes, and to elements in accessible rooms and spaces.

2. Water Closet Clearances in Single User Toilet Rooms (Sections 603, 604)

In single-user toilet rooms, the water closet now must provide clearance for both a forward and a parallel approach and, in most situations, the lavatory cannot overlap the water closet clearance. The in-swinging doors of single use toilet or bathing rooms may swing into the clearance around any fixture if clear floor space is provided within the toilet room beyond the door’s arc.

3. Common Use Circulation Paths in Employee Work Areas (Sections 203.9, 206.2.8)

Under the 1991 Standards, its was necessary to design work areas to permit an employee using a wheelchair to approach, enter, and exit the area. Under the 2010 Standards, it will be necessary for new or altered work areas to include accessible common use circulation paths within employee work areas, subject to certain specified exceptions.

4. Location of Accessible Routes (Section 206)

All accessible routes connecting site arrival points and accessible building entrances now must coincide with or be located in the same general area as general circulation paths. Also, where a circulation path is interior, the required accessible route must also be located in the interior of the facility.  [Editor’s note: this requirement will help meet the Universal Design principle of equitable use by all persons.]

These are just some of the many changes.  The DOJ ADA website offers several fact sheets and the actual regulations, so take some time to review it if you have not already.

Questions about the Americans with Disabilities Act?  Comments about how these changes will affect your projects and how you are adapting plans to accommodate these coming changes?  Drop me a line in the comment section below.  Also, be sure to enter your email to get delivery of posts direct to your email inbox to be sure you never miss a post.


Photo:  “Minneapolis Road to Freedom 71“by Transguyjay via Flickr/Creative Commons License.

Universal Design-Part 2: Current Challenges

Ed. note:  This is the second of a two part series on Universal Design by Guest Post author Dick Duncan.  “Universal Design-Part 1: Beyond ADA and Fair Housing,” can be found here

 UDI logo



Current Challenges

Partially due to success of accessibility implementation and compliance in recent years, the term “accessibility” and the ideas about an “accessible” built environment are commonly known, if imperfectly understood. For example, to many people “fully accessible” means primarily usable by people who use wheelchairs, losing the inclusionary aspect of responding to the needs of people with other disabling conditions. One result of this pervasive consciousness about and misunderstandings of accessibility is confusion about the nature of universal design.

 Common myths include: 

  • That universal design is really “just accessibility that is dressed up to look good.”  If this were true, a new paint job might suffice.
  • That universal design is just fully accessible design but with the addition of characteristics that makes it usable by other people too. Well-engineered functionality is crucial to a universal outcome but will always fall short if the design is not integrated or mainstreamed. Often misused in this regard is the term universal access.
  • That universal design is an umbrella term that now covers all things accessible and assistive. This lacks recognition of the broad beneficiary groups, the integrated and mainstreamed aspects of universal design, and the differences between accessibility, assistive technology, and universal design.
  • That universal design is the new age or current term for accessible design. It is “what we are calling it” now. This suggests the notion that universal design is merely the politically correct term that one must be careful to use in polite company. With this thinking, universal design is grouped together with code compliance and other efforts.

There is legitimate confusion between universal design and more similar concepts or concepts, such as visitability (an US-based approach, limited to housing, that promotes limited usability features), Design for All (a similar idea to universal design, principally in use in Europe), Life Span Design (used in the US, principally reflecting age sensitive design), Transgenerational Design (an idea formed in the US that good design now must accommodate people of all ages), Flex Housing (developed by Canadian Housing and Mortgage that includes features of accessibility as well as other innovative design ideas), and Lifetime Homes (developed in the UK, broadly applied standards with specific usability features). The variety of concepts and common misunderstandings regarding universal design highlights the need for continued educational activities and suggests the need for international communication and collaboration.

An important component of a universal approach to design challenges focuses on the process of design. In this manner, an appropriate outcome can be assured through the process itself. Termed  ‘universal designing’ , a broad and inclusive design process includes many perspectives and is mindful of the ergonomic, human factors, and social equity considerations.

Global Universal Design Code

A national effort is now underway to develop voluntary universal design standards that will cover all domains of the built environment, initially retail, community and housing. The Mace Institute is an active participant with the Global Universal Design Commission (GUDC) and AARP in efforts to bring these new standards to life over the next several years.



Universal Design Summit 4 

To obtain excellent education on UD issues, consider attending Universal Design Summit 4 this fall.  The Summit, entitled “Creating Livable Homes & Communities” will be held October 10-12, 2010 in St. Louis, Missouri. 


RL Mace Universal Design Institute

To learn more about the RL Mace Universal Design Institute, download this Executive Summary (pdf) or visit the UDI website.

Universal Design- Part 1: Beyond ADA and Fair Housing

Most construction professionals in America are well aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the changes in design which have resulted in an effort to accommodate disabled persons in public places.  Far fewer construction professionals, however, are aware of the concept of “universal design”.  The international nonprofit RL Mace Universal Design Institute , which is based in Chapel Hill, NC, is aiming to change that and to educate the construction professional on why building to a UD standard will add value to all built environments. [Full disclosure: I am the current Vice President of the RL Mace UDI and member of the Board of Directors].

The Institute’s Mission Statement :

“The Institute’s work manifests the belief that all new environments and products, to the greatest extent possible, should and can be usable by everyone regardless of age, ability, or circumstance.”

I asked Richard (“Dick”) Duncan, Executive Director of the Mace UDI, to explain a little about the need for and concept of universal design.  What follows is the Part 1 of the first ever Guest Post on this blog:

UDI logo

Richard Duncacn

Universal Design Part 1: Beyond ADA and Fair Housing

by Richard C. Duncan, MRP, Executive Director

Adapted and revised from: Universal Design – Clarification and Development: A Report for the Ministry of the Environment, Government of Norway, Richard Duncan, NC State University, March 2007


“The intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities. “

Ron Mace, 1988

Emergence of Universal Design

It is generally agreed that the term universal design first entered into usage in the mid-1980’s by United States (US) architect, Ronald L. Mace, FAIA Since then the concept of universal design has spread worldwide and has influenced and joined related concepts such as Design for All, Life Span Design, and Inclusive Design. In its 20-year history in the US, universal design has slowly gained acceptance but has seen an uneven adoption. Universal design still remains a strategy that has been implemented by different sectors of the private and public domains, selectively and for fairly narrowly framed purposes. From the perspective of more usable and supportive environments, the US remains principally focussed on accessibility: developing regulations, codes, standards, policies and procedures to provide societal inclusion to people with disabilities.

The emergence of universal design depended substantially on many years of work on accessibility and the lessons learned from those activities. Accessibility efforts and the fundamental values of the disability rights movement in large part formed the foundation on which universal design concepts were built. But, universal design came into being partly because of the nature of accessibility that existed in the US by 1985; it was neither commonly found nor was it creatively applied. However, the appearance of universal design did not herald the end of accessibility. Two of the most significant American federal laws requiring accessibility were yet to be enacted by the time universal design began to emerge: the Fair Housing Amendments Act was signed in 1988 and the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990. Universal design and accessibility have continued to develop in a connected yet parallel manner, during the time of the greatest activity in the realm of accessibility code compliance. To be sure, the philosophical basis for the accessibility movement and universal design are quite similar: inclusion, full participation, and social equity. Universal design extends beyond the confines of accessibility to include all persons and creates that inclusion by promoting integrated and mainstreamed products, environmental features, and services.

The national expansion of accessibility provisions into private buildings, multifamily housing, and beyond, has continued the dominant role of accessible design to this time. This has presented a challenge for advocates of universal design in their promotion of conceptual, policy and practical distinctions. While the great advantage of 50 years worth of work on accessible design has been the creation of a markedly accessible non-residential built environment, it has also carved a large space in the collective psychology of people in the US. For example, universal design as a distinct idea is often confused with, if not subsumed by, the more narrowly targeted concept of accessible design. Broadening the beneficiary group of more usable designing to include all of society is a significant practical and symbolic step that still requires much more effort.

The accessibility field in the US has been part of the civil rights movement for people with disabilities that began after World War II, and was related to the larger worldwide human rights movement principally identified with the United Nations. The US disability activities paralleled other similar civil rights movements by disenfranchised groups in the US at that time, for example women, African Americans, and Native Americans. During the 1960’s and since then, the disability community in the US has vigorously advocated for the creation of civil rights legislation and building regulations that provided accessibility features, e.g., curb cuts, stepless entrances, and lever door hardware. The initial major push into accessible building design came after the publication of the American National Standards Institute’s (ANSI) A117.1 standard in 1961, the first US accessibility design standard.

When Universal Design arose 25 years later, accessibility work in the intervening years had made great progress by appearing in some federal and state policies with respect to programs and services, architecture, transportation, public rights of way, public spaces, and to a lesser extent, housing. Although not uniformly applied or consistently rendered, by the mid-1980’s accessible design was becoming more of a reality for the design and construction industry across the US. Standards such as ANSI A117.1, and its many later revisions and other accessibility provisions that were based on it were a great steps forward in the field, yet had similar flaws. Those flaws revealed the limitations of a code-based approach. Later analysis showed that the codes and standards “… have been developed by an approach of modifying the norm through the use of a few specially designed features and products to accommodate the ‘few’ who vary from the norm.” This approach led to an ‘after-the-fact’ implementation of access features (even in new construction) which resulted in “…  facilities which have their own ‘functional limitations’ and aesthetic problems.”  Other code-based challenges were also noted. Too often, segregated accessible features were ‘special,’ more expensive, and usually ugly.

The twenty-five years of work on accessible design in the US, from 1960 – 1985, formed the body of work from which universal design emerged. Continued progress in the realm of accessibility since then has firmly established accessible design as a fundamental discipline and outcome that has benefited many. Done well and creatively, good accessible design can be truly universal. As was said nearly 10 years ago, “The demographic, legislative, economic, and social changes that brought us to this point are increasing the momentum that will propel us into the 21st century that will need to be more accommodating of individual differences. Universal design provides a blueprint for maximum inclusion of all people.”

Tomorrow’s Post:  Universal Design Part 2- Current Challenges in Universal Design