Yale School of Architecture (Susan)

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    Mid-Term Update

    S Surface
    Oct 19, '08 12:49 PM EST

    I've been reading Bess Williamson's excellent blog, The Right to Design - specifically, the entry on A World Without Stairs. It raised some questions for me regarding universal design and accessibility. These questions are almost ridiculously basic, but as a (future) architect I should know the answers - and don't!

    If a building's main programmatic functions are accessible, but has alternate modes of circulation that are not - it doesn't count as universal design... does it? I mean when a building has a primary accessible circulation core with additional non-accessible circulation (main core + 2 fire stairs, for example - basically, our building codes prevent buildings from being truly universal.) I think about this a lot because of the A&A (oops, I mean Paul Rudolph Hall). We have a truly fabulous stairwell with giant landings, some of which feature carpeted benches and obscure sex crannies, and nearly all of which feature either bizarre faux-ancient plaster wall hangings or geodes, seashells, and various odds-and-ends embedded into the concrete.

    It's a great stairwell. I like to hang out in it. A lot. It's even been discussed on Archinect! But a wheelchair user wouldn't be able to autonomously make use of it. Of course, the A&A has been around since well before the ADA, and I do think they've done a good job of joining the new art history addition and making most of the necessary-for-school programming accessible. But it's still annoying that some of the most idiosyncratic, character-giving spaces in the building are physically off-limits to some (including the 8th floor former-apartment and roof terrace with the best views of New Haven).

    Then there's the apparent building maintenance policy of total disregard for disabled persons. Student ID keycards don't work on the accessible entrance. The "push here for automatic door" button on the outside of the building does not work, even when the building is unlocked - as the 200+ of us who routinely carry armfuls of coffee + books + 30x40" pieces of chipboard know all too well (yet another case of Universal Design that would benefit a Universal community, not just disabled people). For the past 2 days, the accessible entrance has been blocked off, with a sign directing users to "Please enter at top of stairs." I don't understand how they can get away with this. We may not have visibly disabled students/staff, but we do have many elderly faculty, plus a public gallery and a library that all the University is supposed to be able to access, and I've definitely shared the elevator recently with an undergrad with a broken foot.

    I started thinking about universal design quite a bit during the design phase of our Building Project last semester. (See also the Architectural Record article and my photo albums.) Although we don't know for sure (no mortgage was sealed when we designed/built the house), the hypothetical buyer is a war veteran who has Multiple Sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. The owner's unit was to be fully accessible. She'll live with her husband and 2 children (who do not have disabilities), and the house has an attached, non-accessible rental unit for income to go toward mortgage payments. Many of us had the logical initial idea of putting the rental on the second story and the owner's unit on the ground floor. However, given the zoning, setback, and lot coverage percentage restrictions, it proved impossible to get all of the required 1600 square feet for the owner's unit on the ground and still have enough space left over for porches (crucial in New Haven!) and the entrance to the tenant unit. There were some whispers early on that we'd either have the budget money for, or an in-kind donation of, a stair-lift, but that did not materialize. And no wonder - after the in-kind donations of materials and labor (no cash donations allowed because of the school's tax situation), the house cost something like $200,000 to build, and was designed and constructed in only five months.

    Accordingly, our owner's unit has a second story loft, reached only by a staircase. It's a gorgeous staircase. The old tables from the architecture studios were rescued en route to the dumpster, then refinished by several of my classmates. Two of them also took charge of welding the structure and joining it all together, and the result is tactile, warm, strong. It's one of the most remarkable components in the house. However, it saddens/angers me that the most visually central, beautiful elements of the house is something that the future owner, who will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for this home, cannot use. The loft space is designed to be "visually accessible" from the ground floor, but that is a silly excuse for what is actually the result of the tight budget and the very rapid design/build process. There's an argument that "she can enjoy looking at it," but that's not enough. If I were buying a house, I'd expect to be able to physically access and make use of my entire house and would feel taunted if a fantastic central element of my own home was off-limits to me. It's different when someone inhabits an extant house that can't be renovated to a universal state - and yes, people figure out ways inhabit all kinds of spaces. But if part of the design challenge is accessibility, then the result should be accessible, or else the design fails conceptually. (Perhaps the problem is that we are required to "meet ADA requirements," rather than challenged to produce a work of universal design.) Home is meant to be a refuge, especially within the rest of the world that constantly sends a message to people with disabilities that their needs can always be compromised to cut a corner or two because they matter less than other people's needs.

    There is value in using architecture to challenge, question, and propose alternatives to our assumptions about comfort, usability, and domesticity. But I don't believe this particular project was the time and place for that, nor, to my knowledge, did anyone's design idea hinge upon such challenges. Oh, and if we're talking about challenging norms and conventions with design... hello! Making a radical commitment to universal design does challenge norms & assumptions!

    That said - the house is far more accessible than most residences in the area. The driveway and entry system are sloped. The kitchen is spacious and the master suite/bathroom are all accessible. The non-accessible parts of the house (loft and basement) are points for future generations of BP designers (and the client) to consider, and to learn from this year's difficulties. If the developer is committed to investing in accessible homes in a location where the zoning and lot sizes make it difficult or impossible to achieve the required square footage on the ground floor, they must commit to allocating enough budget to include a lift or stair lift. However, I don't really know what the exact numbers were, nor every single reason that every design decision was made. I do believe that everyone involved did the best they could given the tight limits of time and budget.

    The program could benefit from more education at the very beginning of the project about universal design - not only how-tos, but whys, and the history/theory of the rights of disabled people. Many (If not most) of us have no idea about how to approach UD, nor how to talk about disability. Historical & theoretical concerns are off the radar entirely. For example, I didn't even know that "wheelchair-bound" was considered an insulting term until Bess corrected me, and thank goodness she did, as I had been cluelessly using it all semester! In fact I'm probably using some terms incorrectly in this blog post, and also have no idea. (Feel free to notify if that's the case.) My team had vague ideas about what makes a space accessible (turning radii, hallway and door widths), but had no real ideas about how to achieve this until the final reviews for our projects when guest jurors pointed out some very basic errors that could've been corrected earlier & quite easily during the design process - which would've meant that we could have spent more of the review discussing architectural concepts rather than simply being told "But that corner won't work... and the windows are too low/high."

    Finally. Unless your concept is something like "inacessibility" or "abundant proliferation of stairs," UD can work within basically any formal or conceptual framework, and isn't a design-killer. At least no more so than stairs, plumbing, electricity, and all the other services you assume are going to have to get in there somehow. I don't know all about the specifics of ADA - let's assume that there are some well-intentioned but ludicrous, archaic, contextually inappropriate, and/or unhelpful things in it, as with all building codes. A few bungled codes (which presumably one could lobby to change or exempt?) don't negate the importance of respecting all bodies. The next time some jerky architect informs me of their opinion that "ADA is killing architecture," I will exercise my privilege of being physically able to kick that person hard, in a place that will definitely let them experience a couple days of empathy with people who can't walk too easily. ;)


    So, that's enough of the past. This semester has been utterly hectic, and I've been suffering from Blogger's Guilt: it's been so long since I posted that it's embarrassing to post again.

    In the midst of the work-avalanche, Kazys Varnelis' book, Networked Publics is out. I collaborated with Israel Kandarian and Kazys to design the cover. Kazys graciously sent me a copy, and that unexpected package felt like an oasis of "wow, someone actually liked my design enough to publish a few thousand of it" in the middle of a rough school week. Around the same time, the Royal United States Architects (aka me & my partners Jacob, Sean and Choi) were told that our entry is in the White House Redux book and exhibition at Storefront for Art and Architecture. Wow, someone actually liked our design enough to publish a few hundred of it!

    If you read this, please vote for our entry in the "popular election." RUSA still have a shot at winning the illustrious $108 in ad revenue!!!

    In September, we had a week-long (including weekends) Environmental Workshop with Patrick Bellew of Atelier Ten and Thomas Auer of Transsolar.

    Here's a slide they showed during a lecture in Hastings Hall.

    We had midterm pinups earlier this week, and are now in the midst of a week-long workshop on Daylighting with MJ Long.
    DIVERSION: Before finding the URL for the design practice, upon querying the search engine, I found this:

    I Heart MJ, Long-Sleeved T-Shirt.
    I am excited to make a model that is so huge I can stick my entire head in it.

    I should go do that now - and also finish formulating a rough abstract/bibliography for my paper for Keller Easterling's Globalization Space seminar. I'm proposing to write (roughly) about plumbing infrastructures (or alternatively, the globalization of accessibility in building codes, if my plumbing idea doesn't go over too well.)

    I'll update SOON regarding this semester's studio project. Oh, and I've finally met Kyle, the other Yale blogger! We even live in the same building. Cue "It's A Small World."


    • nice post, susan. i have approached accessibility in a similar way to what you're proposing - i.e. recognizing that 'ada is killing architecture' makes NO sense.

      if architects are interested in providing positive engaging experiences through the awesomeness of their architecture... ( < that's what we all want, right? admit it.) could it POSSIBLY be ok for that awesome experience to be for just a limited population and for it to actually be an unpleasant, exclusionary experience for others.

      it must be for everyone.

      Oct 19, 08 4:09 pm  · 

      Hi Steven,

      Thanks for the comment :) I agree with you totally.

      This also made me think... It doesn't help that many of the products that are meant to help with accessibility are total eyesores. No wonder architects are loathe to spec them. There is no reason that a stair-lift or ramp/handrail needs to lend anyone's building the aura of an orthopedic torture device. Imagine of all of the designers currently pumping out consumer goods currently sold in Moss and the like each applied some time & intellect to accessible designs. Imagine of the manufacturers of accessibility-giving designs saw design/form/materiality/concept as integral to accessibilty and equality - something that we do all deserve. Imagine if everyone involved were committed to keeping these things affordable (or at least available in a variety of price points.) The results could be pretty great.

      There have been some interesting approaches to this. In the McCormick Center at IIT, by Koolhaas/OMA, there's this thing:

      (photo by fensterbme on flickr.)

      Students can hang out on this hybrid stair/ramp. It's a highly prioritized figure within the building. It simply looks.... awesome. Of course it isn't entirely unproblematic - wheelchair users can't access the stairs part (so I guess it isn't "Universal") and the whole thing is predicated upon having enough room for giant circulation with such a gradual slope and wide aisle that it doesn't need handrails: a luxury hardly afforded to every single building. But it's definitely an interesting approach to something that designers too often overlook as an opportunity.

      Oct 19, 08 5:10 pm  · 

      very nice post susan. you should do more of them.

      also, very nice pics in the article in arch record. totally envious.

      but in a good way.

      Oct 20, 08 1:46 am  · 
      vado retro

      hey i did that kind of ramp in my studio project twenty years ago...but that ramp does not meet ada at all. ie rail for 6" rise.

      Oct 20, 08 11:02 am  · 


      Did you enjoy collaborating with KV as much as I did on the infrastructural city book?

      I just hope he sends me a copy too along with my original slides!

      Oct 20, 08 1:28 pm  · 

      I posted so much related stuff in this thread that I wanted it to be linked here FOREVER.

      Treekiller - Yes I enjoyed collaborating with KV. He's great!!! Super good boss that turned into a super good friend. :)

      Oct 21, 08 10:51 am  · 
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      Nov 1, 20 11:41 am  · 

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