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Josh Safdie: Disability used to be thought of something which is sort of assigned to a person, and static. So somebody has a disability, right? And wherever they go they experience that disability. More recent thinking about disability has said, “Well actually maybe it’s the environments which cause us to experience that disability.”
Anita Walker: Hello, I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. And joining me today is Josh Safdie, who is a principal at Kessler McGuinness and Associates. A big name for an architecture firm. Welcome, Josh.
Josh Safdie: Thanks very much, Anita.
Anita Walker: And I invited Josh to come and join us, to talk a little bit about a topic that is of extreme interest to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and that is universal design. Our ambition is to make Massachusetts the most accessible place on the planet, to participate in the arts and culture. And we discovered this thing called “universal design,” which we think is a foundation on which we can engage our organizations in everything from the way their facilities are built, their concerts are performed, their exhibitions are designed. Josh, what is universal design?
Josh Safdie: Well at its most basic level, universal design is an approach toward design which embraces the diversity of human ability. It’s been defined as the design of environments, buildings, objects systems, right? That work for people of all different ages, abilities and cultures.
Anita Walker: So talk about what that means. And I know you use an analogy that involves being in outer space.
Josh Safdie: Yeah. So I mean in addition to working in the architectural field, I also teach. And this was actually a slide from introductory lectures at Mass. College of Art and Design, where I teach in the architecture program. And it’s a slide of an astronaut doing a moonwalk, or a spacewalk actually. And the idea is that disability used to be thought of as something which is sort of assigned to a person, and static. So somebody has a disability, right? And wherever they go they experience that disability. More recent thinking about disability has said, “Well actually maybe it’s the environments which cause us to experience that disability.” Right? It’s a temporary thing, not a permanent thing. An example that I give then, is of somebody doing a spacewalk. Space is an environment where our abilities don’t match up with whatever the environment gives us. We need technology to allow us to exist in that environment. And it’s a parallel for the city street, for a movie theater, for a school. For any kind of environment where the innate characteristics or the qualities of that environment, don’t somehow align with our individual abilities. And so we experience this feeling of disability.
Anita Walker: So the old-style definition of disability would be somebody who is in a wheelchair, or maybe uses a hearing aid, maybe has one of those blue cards hanging in the rearview mirror of their car. And it isn’t anybody else.
Josh Safdie: Right. And that’s another one of the points that I try to– I can tell you’ve heard me talk a couple of times..
Anita Walker: <laughs>
Josh Safdie: …which is great. And by the way, when you came to speak with us at the Access Committee at the BSA, I definitely noticed that you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid at this point.
Josh Safdie: Because I could hear you saying all this language back in a way that means that you really kinda get it. But no, I mean there’s often, you know, there’s only three million or so wheelchair users in the country, and we’re a country of over three hundred million, right? So it’s not like we see wheelchair users every day. When we work in our office with colleges and universities, they’ll say, “Well we don’t have any students who use wheelchairs on campus, so why do we need to worry about this?” But the idea is that universal design isn’t just sort of geared towards that narrow definition of a person with a disability. That we might think of from the blue placard in the rearview mirror, or from the sorts of requirements that we find in the building code, or in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Universal design approaches it much more broadly. It’s really talking about all of us, many of us whom– most of whom will experience some kind of a disability or functional limitation at some point in our lives, even if it’s not a permanent disability.
Anita Walker: So the interesting thing is, if it weren’t for the ADA we wouldn’t have all those curb cuts and all those automatic door openers. And so people with strollers and rollaway suitcases and their arms full, going in and out of buildings, would still be struggling.
Josh Safdie: Exactly, exactly. No, and I mean there are a couple of really basic examples like that that I can often point to. Whether it’s to a student who’s trying to take this on for the first time, or to an architect who I’m advising saying, “Look, this is why we’re thinking about these things.” I mean there are a few basic baseline accessibility enhancements to the built environment, that really do work for everybody. And that’s ultimately what universal design is about.
Anita Walker: So you think about universal design differently than you think about the ADA, Americans with Disabilities Act? Or is there a..
Josh Safdie: Yeah, they’re related. Some people would say that the idea of universal design built on the.. societal work that led to the adoption of the ADA in 1990. The principles of universal design were coined by thought leaders in the field in the late 1990s, but obviously the thinking and the work was done before that. But universal design really is a step above accessibility, which is what the ADA is driving at. The ADA, State Building Codes, these are mandatory minimum standards, and they address a very narrow segment of the population. Universal design builds on that, and sort of tries to bring things much further than just the ADA or the State Building Code does.
Anita Walker: So what are some universal design strategies that popped into your head, as an example of something that’s beyond the ADA and, “Boy, wouldn’t it be nice if we had that”?
Josh Safdie: Well I mean I think.. there was– I’ve worked with a colleague who has been doing this stuff for a long, long time, including in teaching. And in the 1980s I was a kid, but I’m told that there was a movement <chuckles> in design schools about behavioral design, right? Focusing on really the behavior of humans in the built environment. And I think that a lot of the principles of universal design, which are focused on not necessarily, “Can I get up that set of stairs?” Or, “Can I read the braille on that sign?” But are focused more on how we intuitively or naturally as humans interact with the environment. These are the things that get the most exciting to me about universal design. Because they move away from minimum standards, and I think they put in place the opportunities for innovation and creativity.. in design. That you’re thinking about things that are very intuitive to all of us, it’s sort of basic human behavior. But if you’re coming at it from a universal design perspective, you’re also maybe thinking about users who have a very different experience from you, and how you might learn from their experience to make a design which is sort of– changes your experience as well.
Anita Walker: So do architects today embrace the notion of universal design? It almost seems like there could be a tension between aesthetic design and universal design.
Josh Safdie: Yeah, I mean they’re starting to. It’s certainly something which is becoming much more widely known. And so more and more– and not just among architects, but also among the consumers of architecture. So organizations, cities and towns, right? You see more and more requests for design teams that don’t just include an accessibility consultant, but also include a universal design consultant. And I think that architects are beginning to recognize that it’s a very relevant approach to design. Particularly with an aging population, particularly with people with multiple and more complex disabilities becoming greater and greater participants in society, now that we’re 25 years on from the passage of the ADA. So I find that it is something that architects and designers are more tuned into, but I also find it’s something which still very often gets confused with accessible design. So one of the things that I try to make clear whenever I’m working on a design team, from the very beginning, is there’s accessible design, there’s universal design. But the two of them are very separate, one is sort of a minimum and required, the other is aspirational.
Anita Walker: And the wonderful thing about the aspirational component, is that it doesn’t separate the people who may have barriers to participation or mobility.
Josh Safdie: Exactly, that’s exactly right. And I think when I’m able to spin that aspiration into something which is leading edge, something which is forward-thinking, something which is of the 21st century. That’s when they start to get excited about it, both architects and owners.
Anita Walker: Can you give us an example of a project you’ve been working on that you’re excited about?
Josh Safdie: You know, here’s something that I mean.. one of the– there are some projects that I like to point to, or share examples of. Not my own work necessarily, but work that is out there in the world, to sort of inspire. And particularly specialized environments, like a school for the blind, for example, which might have very, very specific design details which are intended to help students. Not who are blind as in they can’t see, but who have low vision, right? Very few people are absolutely blind. But very, very specific design details that help these students navigate through a space, actually become architectural and design elements which are part of the architect’s creative process. And so I try to find images to share, both with students and other professionals. Where it’s not the icing on the cake, it’s not the thing that you do at the end to make it universally designed. But it’s knit into the very, very beginning of the design process.
Anita Walker: So talk a little bit about.. who drives whether or not universal design is part of a project? Is that something where, I’m going to build a new cultural center and I have to think to ask for it? Is that something that architects will say to me, “Have you thought about universal design?”
Josh Safdie: I think most of the time the owner, or the city, or the eventual operator is asking for it. There are not many firms out there who are putting their shingle out and saying, “We do universal design. If you want it, come to us.” Because there just aren’t that many people coming to them necessarily. But more and more I think it’s becoming something that the general public is aware of. I actually have– I’m part of a team that’s going to an interview next week for a new public school, in a town in Eastern Mass. And the town, when it sat down to right out the RFP, which was with the Massachusetts State Building Authority, or the School Building Authority. When they wrote out the RFP, they said specifically, “We want universal design to be part of what we are doing.” And I think that’s a change that’s happened even in the past five to ten years.
Anita Walker: Is it necessarily more expensive?
Josh Safdie: No. It would be great to have the definitive study released someday that says, “No, it’s not.” And of course in architecture there’s renovation and there’s new construction. And I will say that from a renovation standpoint, it’s often more challenging to make universal design work. For new construction, again, as long as it’s knit in from the very beginning, it doesn’t have to be more expensive. And even if there are parts that are more expensive, you know, I say to architects, “We always pay for things in buildings that we don’t absolutely need.” Right? Whether it’s aesthetic, whether it’s a material choice, right? And it’s really about the sort of underlying values of the organization, or the operator of the building, as to whether they want to sort of commit to universal design. It’s one of those things that they don’t absolutely need, but they’re willing to spend a little bit of money for.
Anita Walker: So what’s your forecast for the future? Is it one of these days going just be, everybody does universal design?
Josh Safdie: I’d like to think so. And I think that many architects are already doing it to a degree, and they don’t realize it. <laughs> Right?
Anita Walker: They’re accidentally doing it <laughs>.
Josh Safdie: Well because they’re thinking, they’re thinking and they’re working thoughtfully. And they are more and more tuning in to the needs of their end users, which is one of the basic premises of universal design. The difference maybe, is that I would put end users in front of a client that might be much more diverse than the end users that they’re thinking of. But I think certainly there are demographic shifts which are driving us this way, baby boomers aging, you know, these are things that are in the news and we’re hearing all about it. But I’m seeing in certain industries a move towards universal design which is being demographically driven. Because they see universal design as synonymous with, or at least related to, aging in place for example, or aging in community. I was working on a multi-family housing project as a universal design consultant in New York. And this was not affordable housing or senior housing, this was market rate housing. But they recognized the value within a market, of apartments and common spaces that would work for seniors. And they even had a branding and a marketing pitch for it, this was the “silver sophisticate” user group, right? So they’re thinking..
Anita Walker: Oh. Silver sophisticate. I represent that remark.
Anita Walker: What do you think are the benefits for our field? The field of arts and culture, museums and performance halls. What’s the benefit there in thinking about universal design?
Josh Safdie: I mean I think it’s access on the most basic level. Not maybe the capital A access as in, you know, something like the Americans with Disabilities Act. But I think the more that you can anticipate a diversity of users, and make a place that works for that diversity of users, the more likely people are to come and initiate a relationship with an organization, come to a venue, go to a performance. And I think also the more likely they are to return, and maybe to return with the grandmother that they left at home the first time, because they wasn’t [sic] sure if they could make the trek, those kinds of things.
Anita Walker: As we’ve been engaging in this work at the Mass. Cultural Council, one of the things we’ve learned is that people generally won’t go to the cultural destination and say, “I have a problem.” They just won’t go.
Josh Safdie: Right. That’s absolutely right, yeah. And I think the more that organizations can advertise an attitude about inclusiveness, the more likely people are not to make that decision. And you can advertise that with information on your website, you can advertise it with particular events, you can advertise it by participating in your new program, the UP program. But I mean I do think that the more that people can– the more you can remove that level of uncertainty for people, that when I get there to that event, to that place, I’m going to be able to participate, the more likely they are to give it a shot.
Anita Walker: And thank you for mentioned our new program, UP. Universal Programs and Universal Places, built on the principles of universal design.
Anita Walker: We’ve been talking with Josh Safdie, a principal at Kessler McGuinness and Associates, about universal design. Another Creative Mind Out Loud.
Josh Safdie: Thanks so much for having me, Anita.
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