There is a growing awareness of the importance of creating spaces that cater to the diverse needs of all Australians, including those with a disability.

Architects, as the visionary creators of our built environment, bear a significant responsibility in championing this cause by ensuring people with disabilities and human diversity have input into the design process to ensure designs are not just accessible but are also inclusive and future proofed.

Data from Emerald Insight found it costs not even 1% of the total expenditure for a new build to make universally accessible changes – whereas the cost to renovate a current building to accessible standards can reach up to 14% of total cost.

The Fiona Stanley Hospital in Perth experienced significant delays and cost blowouts during its development, including design issues with the size and scale of bariatric rooms where rooms were not deemed large enough for equipment, including hoists to lift people with mobility issues.

The Inclusive Design team at Ability Works has been working with a range of organisations from top corporates to Government to add inclusive design guidance into large infrastructure projects, commercial developments, new buildings and renovations. This work considers the interplay of various requirements, such as building codes and accessibility standards, and then applies a diverse human experience overlay by testing usability by people who experience barriers and challenges. It’s this ‘stress-testing’ with edge-users that is giving some architects the ‘edge’ on creating innovative resilient designs that can be enjoyed by the whole community. 

And after years of doing this, it has become clear that there are three easy changes architects can make to their design process right now to lead the way in making more inclusive spaces.

1. Involving people with disabilities in the design phase

The most fundamental principle of inclusive design is ensuring the participation of those who directly benefit from it, particularly people who experience significant barriers. Architects must recognise the invaluable insights that people with disability can offer during the design phase. By involving them from the outset, architects will see firsthand their challenges, barriers and solutions.

Imagine crafting a building without consulting those who will navigate it in a wheelchair or those who have a vision or hearing impairment or an intellectual disability. Without their input, crucial aspects such as pathway widths, tactile surfaces and ergonomic considerations might be overlooked. Incorporating these design considerations creates more accessible experiences for wheelchair users as well as parents with prams, trolleys, motorised scooters and the broader community. By engaging in meaningful dialogue with people with disabilities, architects can create spaces that not only meet minimum accessibility standards but also foster a sense of belonging and empowerment for the wider community.

Ability Works recently partnered with Big Plans, an innovative 3D organisation that offers scale projection technology, reproduces real-size floor plans, and takes the guesswork out of a build. Add to this our employees with disability in the earliest stages of new designs and you have a winning outcome.

This attracted Channel 10 National News to cover the story and the critical need for more architects to consider partnerships such as this, which create results that meet the needs of the broader community.

2. Looking beyond the access consultant

An access consultant is a necessity and not a substitute for inclusive design. Access consultants typically focus on regulatory compliance and technical specifications, ensuring buildings meet the required accessibility standards. True inclusivity that considers the practical aspects of daily living goes beyond standards, guidelines and building codes.

True inclusivity considers the human experience. It’s entirely possible to have a building meet accessibility standards by installing a ramp to enter the building. However, having the ramp on the exterior of the building, 20 metres long, and open to the elements does not offer optimal usability and is not equitable and inclusive.

Instead of treating accessibility as an item on a checklist, it needs to be integrated into the overall design ethos from conceptualisation to execution – and the diverse needs of users need to be considered through every stage of the design process in an iterative manner.

3. Avoid exaggerating the changes needed

Architects must strike a delicate balance between innovation and pragmatism. Exaggerating the modifications required for inclusivity can lead to misconceptions and apprehension amongst clients, developers and other stakeholders.

Instead, there needs to be a focus on practical solutions that seamlessly integrate accessibility features without compromising the aesthetic integrity of the design. Small adjustments, such as strategic placement of ramps, intuitive signage, audio and adjustable furniture can often create significant improvements in access without imposing drastic alterations.

Furthermore, architects can leverage technology and innovative materials to enhance accessibility discreetly.

Given that 1 in 5 Australians has a disability, by making small changes like these throughout the design process, architects can play a pivotal role in shaping a more inclusive built environment.

Ultimately, the true measure of architectural excellence lies not just in the beauty of the structures we create but the lives changed by making accessibility non-negotiable.

By Sue Boyce, CEO of Ability Works Australia