Author: Project Bloom
The SJU Community Garden was created in order to be at the intersection of sustainability and social justice. It is an intentionally created space that…
Do you want to make a difference on SJU’s campus? Or maybe you want to share your ideas about how to make our school more…
Graham: Hi all, and welcome to episode two of Talking Bloom. I’m Graham Fagerquist. I’m joined by Sam Britt. On today’s episode we’re going to talk about universal design and retrofitting and who gets lost in the shuffle when we talk about these two concepts of design.
Sam: Yeah, so that is basically what we’re gonna talk about today. It’s kind of a heavier topic, I guess, in our introduction podcast last week, but there’s so much that goes into it. And there’s so much discussion and even just like argument about what universal design should be, what it should cover and whether it’s actually, at the end of the day, the most effective way to make things more accessible in today’s day and age.
G: So just reading the definition of universal design, of universal design, i.e. universal design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood in use to the greatest extent possible by all people, regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. So really this is trying to make design that is acts accessible for everyone. But as we’ve seen, there seems to be a lot of pitfalls with universal design. And by trying to make it inclusive for everyone, we seem to lose track of which bodies really need more attention and really what we should be looking for when we’re designing.
S: Yeah, it becomes this case between making everything uniform and remembering that there are people with special needs. As for both physically and psychologically, mentally, even emotionally, they’re just that. One of the pitfalls to commercial design is that a lot of time. It’s what makes it easier for just everyone. And it shouldn’t just be this idea that if it’s easier for just like me and Graham to do something, that’s what’s best for everyone. And it’s also a way of trying to, I guess, wash out the idea of people who have differing bodies from us and trying to trying to think of them more as in a more normal sense, instead of thinking of their bodies as being their own and being something that should be celebrated in their own right instead of something that needs to have the world fixed for them. And I think that’s one of the main points, is that there isn’t just one body that we’re trying to design everything for right now that would give us this grand checklist where literally if you just check off every box, it be accessible to everyone, because at this point it’s almost impossible to make a building that works like that or make a space that works like that. Just because there are so many differing challenges that people face that it’s hard to make a space that kind of specializes for everyone.
G: Yeah when we’re talking about these checklists. It’s interesting because we have these rubrics that we went out into the field and actually completed ourselves. And there is some room for open-endedness on these rubrics, but I think that that’s really is the most important part because there are these certain things that are important with signage and with proximity of parking things that we talked about before. But there has to be this opportunity for people to add different factors because we can’t, no matter how comprehensive we are in developing rubrics to access design, to assess design. We won’t be able to account for everything. And that’s where open ended this comes into play. On the flip side, when we rely on these on different people to relate their own struggles with design and with certain buildings, when we’re going out and we’re doing something like a “Mapathon”, it becomes a problem because instead of incorporating these things to begin with, the responsibility and the burden becomes placed on these people who have the difficulties with these environments to then request the change. And that’s something that ideally we’d like to move past and ideally something we’d like to avoid in general. And it’s difficult, especially on a campus as old as ours. I mean, we’re sitting here in a building that’s over 100 years old and in a campus that prides itself on being here since 1851. So it’s unrealistic to think that everything is going to be state of the art. And it’s also unrealistic to think that we can just level these buildings and construct these new expansive, accessible buildings. But at the same time, it shouldn’t be the burden shouldn’t be placed on the people who have the difficulties navigating these environments to come forward, to have their voice be heard and to request these changes, because that just is completely the wrong way to do things.
S: Yeah, we were talking about this a little bit before the show started. And honestly, the podcast idea is kind of a perfect example because right now, like, no one’s complaining about this as a studio as far as being able to use it, being able to put the podcast together, but say someone in our class was in a wheelchair or struggled with upward mobility. Then all sudden, this podcast room prevents a lot of different challenges and it would be on that person to move forward and try to get that changed instead of, I guess, St. Joe’s thinking about this beforehand and creating environments that would be accessible kind of from the beginning where it isn’t a cramped space like this that’s hard even for us to come in and out of here. And we have you, me and our producer, David, when we are all in here. It is pretty tight, and we kind of think about who goes in first when we walk through the door but it just comes with being at Saint Joe’s and in Philadelphia in general, because Philadelphia, such an old city that so much of it was built hundreds of years ago, way before people are thinking about accessibility of design and retrofitting, both has its pros, has its cons. And obviously at a place like St. Joe’s, it’s gonna require at least a little bit of retrofitting moving forward.
G: Yeah, I think it’s interesting that you brought up wheelchairs because I think that is the kind of trend or what people are. The first thought is when it comes to design and universal design. Are these wheelchair users, and I think that’s a great starting and jumping off point. But at the same time, there are so many other things in this room that need to be changed. And there’s so many other different people that we need to account for. I mean, simply the steep staircases, steep, narrow staircases that we had to navigate to get up to this studio, present a challenge for people whether or not they’re in a wheelchair. And I think that there’s just other things that we don’t consider, like the door handle and the height of the desk that we’re sitting at. And of course, the traditional way of thinking about it. Are these wheelchair users. And that’s not bad. That is not a bad way to think about it, but I think that’s just limiting where we can go. When we’re talking about universal design and barrier free design. It’s just it’s preventing us from branching out enough. And I like that you brought up the history of Philly and the history of the school, because I think that a lot of people grow. They get sentimental and have these attachments to these physical spaces. We see it all the time, especially just in these older cities in New York and Boston and Philadelphia, these places that have been kind of deemed landmarks or or historical sites. People hold on to and they prevent change that would benefit the majority of the population in terms of, oh, we need to maintain this walkway or we need to maintain this cobblestone. But there’s there’s more history is more than the physical things that we still have here. And I think that it’s possible to maintain the historical aspects of the city and the historical aspects of the spaces that we live in, but also make them easier to navigate and just and and make them more well-designed.
S: Yeah, but I guess what we’re talking about as far as taking these older spaces and make them better designed would be this idea of retrofitting instead of universal design on where that’s more so something you take into consideration when going through the blueprints and architecture, when designing a building or designing a room. But retrofitting is honestly something that is important to keep in mind, especially when we’re talking about places where you can’t necessarily knock down the building we’re in right now or you can’t knock down a building in the middle of Philadelphia, and do it from scratch. So retrofitting, that’s where the pros come in, where obviously it can make buildings more accessible but moving forward, going into the future, is where universal design will hopefully take over. And we start to see some minors when architects design new buildings. And I guess this and go into one of our new stories of the week, I guess, where we found this library in Queens, New York that costs forty one half million dollars to build. I think it’s been under construction for two years. It was recently opened and it’s mainly been under fire for its lack of accessibility. It’s got five stories, with old staircases. The one picture we saw, it looked like each row of books was up like maybe five or six feet on a staircase. And there’s only one elevator in the building which people have complain has caused bottlenecks for people who don’t have the same upward mobility as others. Another complaint is honestly with the fine print of the 88 self, because according to that, libraries only need to be accessible to the point where if someone came in and couldn’t physically get to a book, if a librarian goes and get a form that basically checks off the building being accessible. It’s a good thing that people are calling out this library and it’s gonna have to have someone go through and retrofit most of this stuff. It’s good that people are thinking about this and calling out buildings that are built in the present day that don’t take into account all these different types of bodies moving forward. And it just goes into that idea between retrofitting and building something from Universal design perspective.
G: Yes, this library actually took 10 years to build and it’s one Hunter’s Point library, and if you look it up, it’s a beautiful building. It’s a super modern, Just absolutely stunning building. And you can really see that whoever was designing this building put an emphasis on aesthetic and it being this kind of almost sculpture-like building in the middle of the city, but didn’t really take into account anything more than that. And when you look at the interior, once you move away from the external and you look into the interior pictures of this library, the staircases are almost comically tight and comically steep. And I can see there being so many more issues with those staircases beyond just these traditional ideas of wheelchair users and our traditional kind of bodies that we like to use as the template for universal design. And that just becomes a problem because we’ve invested they’ve invested $41 million into this massive building and we’ve talked about the kind of problems with retrofitting. But at this point, is there any choice but to retrofit it? And this is in Queens, New York, at a place that even on their Web site prides himself on being incredibly ethnically and culturally diverse and being one of the largest and busiest public libraries in the country. But how diverse can your library be and how can you pride yourself on this diversity if you’re just ignoring bodies and your ignoring needs and you’re just ignoring accessibility as a whole?
S: Yeah, I think you’re getting at a great jumping off point for our next point, what you were talking about Obviously, wheelchairs are kind of like the poster child for accessibility, but I guess this could bring us into another idea of universal design that some people may not consider, which is one of the other pitfalls, because when people think univeral design, they think of a building that’s easy to navigate, doesn’t require a lot of work physically to move around in, and universal design really encapsulates more than just physical disabilities. It encapsulates the emotional and mental challenges that people may face as well. And I guess going off of the stairs thing, obviously wheelchairs are going to struggle with that. But another case is we talked about this earlier this week in one of my classes, single mothers with strollers, they can’t get up. That’s another group of people who you may not immediately think about one when thinking about this accessibility whom struggle with staircases. I mean, small children on their own struggle, with staircases. Is it dangerous for them to be walking the staircases by themselves? And I guess that moves into the point where I want to talk about, which is, what are some parts of universal design or some bodies we think or situations that people wouldn’t normally think of when they are thinking of accessibility as far as the building goes.
G: I think one of the big ones that jumps out to me, especially on a campus where things can be kind of hard to navigate, is this is proper signage and especially navigating through as a freshman or as a visitor to a campus. When you’re touring colleges or you’re visiting a city or you’re just a tourist in general is trying to get around somewhere that’s completely new to you. And a lot of the times, you know, we have the glowing exit signs and, you know, that’s kind of OK, there’s a door you can kind of figure that out. But there’s there’s a difficulty when it comes to locating a specific room or locating a restroom or locating an elevator. And a lot of the times these signs are lacking. And not just that, but they might just be this small laminated piece of computer paper that’s just slapped on a wall randomly with this kind of ambiguous arrow pointing in the general direction of your desired location. But signage is something that really does play a role in good design. Universal design tries to align itself as being synonymous with good design. Universal design says it’s pretty much good design. And while I think that there are a lot of good things with universal design, there’s people that get lost and there’s things that get lost. Of course, it sounds great on paper, but it just at a certain point, this idea just falls apart when we’re really looking at the nitty gritty of of things when it comes to signage and all these different little things that we might not think of, that might not just jump off the page and become obvious to us at first.
S: Yeah. Going off the thing like signage showing a lot of it even comes down to just the safety and well being of the people who are using a specific space or even people are using a specific object, as we looked at OXO, that brand of kitchen supplies which prides itself on being accessible and it was originally built for people with arthritis. So they come with cushy handles and obviously other people began using them and they’ve become a profitable company because of the comfort they’re kitchenware provides. But going back to the signage, a lot of it just comes down to access and allowing people to not feel basically different because I think one the key is a universal design is. They we want buildings where different bodies don’t feel like they’re causing something in this building to be different than a building across the street. They don’t want to outwardly be felt like they’re being treated different or special. The building should just be a building for them and just be like if they want to go upstairs there should be a way for them to go upstairs easily, and it shouldn’t be “Oh, you have to take the back door where there’s a bunch of ramps for you.” It should just be a way. They should just be able to use the way to get up the stairs, that made people who have easier upward mobility are allowed to use. And that’s where universal design becomes I guess a bit of a challenge is where it’s making buildings were successful of everyone without making a building where like it’s very obvious that they’re taking these huge leaps to make sure that everyone is able to use everything.
G: Yeah and there just it becomes problematic when we talk about designing for everyone because it really is just logistically impossible to design these spaces for everyone in mind. And it really is. It just comes back to the idea that it really is good on paper, but it becomes an oversimplification of things. And as we realize, as we read and we look at overall this material, we realize that simplifying things might be the easy way out. But it becomes problematic because we’re losing lived experience where we’re kind of just throwing everybody together. That’s just not realistic because some people have a greater need for certain changes to be made than others. It really shouldn’t come down to designing for everyone, but taking into account these needs and designing smarter and better rather than just trying to have a cure all and just check off all the boxes in just one swoop.
S: Yeah, I mean that’s basically going back to I guess to begin in the podcast, just not trying to create these buildings where there’s just this one body that kind of conglomerate’s all the different needs and building. It just felt like, oh, if this one person can do all this, then this accessible building because it isn’t just. These businesses, certain amount of problems that we’re facing. Honestly, at this point, we’ve probably haven’t even faced all the different kinds and varying degrees of issues that someone’s body or mind may face. So it’s hard for us now to even say, like, even if we sat down and brainstormed everything we could think of as far as being a challenge. It still wouldn’t be enough because it’s impossible to just get all these different challenges together on a checklist and then take that checklist and create this building that is both not only accessible to everyone, but also functions on its own just as a well-designed building.
G: And yeah, I think that’s where it comes down to the history of looking at where we where we’ve gotten, how we’ve gotten to universal design and thinking about in the 20th century this idea of constructing this ideal body type and kind of using it as the template to design around as we realized and I’m sure everyone can relate to this regardless of their lived experience, is that there isn’t an ideal body type. And as much as we try to, you know, construct it and oh, a male body that’s this tall with this. There just isn’t an ideal body type, so it really becomes impossible. We can’t we can’t reduce bodies to this average or this kind of mythical norm. We have to incorporate certain aspects for everyone. But also it’s a fine line because that’s just realistically an impossible endeavor to try to accomplish when we’re designing and when we’re thinking about how spaces should be.
S: Yeah, it’s just it is a fine line because you want these buildings to be accessible for everyone, but you also don’t want the people who need the accessibility to feel like things are being pointed out for them. The big point of all this as far as accessibility goes, is that people just want to feel like they’re people in a building. They dont want to feel like a nuisance when they have to ask for certain things. They don’t want to feel like they’re asking too much of somebody when maybe someone with anxiety or visual impairment has to ask someone for help. They don’t want to feel like they’re a burden on the people around them. People just want these buildings to be there that just allow you to just be a person and make use of the facilities and get what you want out of somewhere without going over the top and making these people feel different or even in the worst case, make these people feel worse about the situation they’re in. And I feel like that’s what we’re both trying to avoid. And you’re right, it is a real fine line when it comes to making designs, but a line that we’re gonna have to ride moving forward in the future.
G: And I think I even personally need to backpedal a little bit. And I think that’s what makes this such a complicated issue, is when I say things like, well, we can’t make it perfectly accessible. That might be true, but I think that we definitely can get closer to and make these improvements and not put the burden on the people who the improvements need to be made for to make the improvements. And, you know, people will say, well, where does it end? Like, where do we stop? When do we have to? Is this just gonna be a constant thing where we’re always having to make changes and stuff? And the kind of short answer is yes, it is going to be this way. Ideas are always evolving. So we have to balance these standards and keep room for these evolving ideas because things aren’t perfect now and they might not ever be. But that doesn’t mean that we can sit here and become complacent and allow for things just to remain the way they are. We have to keep moving forward and keep taking into account these different things and really challenge ourselves to make these spaces that everyone inhabits better and easier to use and take into account all of the different bodies and not try to just sum it up with one mythical norm.
S: Yeah, and it may not be universal design as we have it right now, it may not be the perfect theory as far as it comes to making these buildings or making these spaces or even just making life just more accessible as it is. It may not be this checklist that we have right now for as far as like our mapping process. I mean, most definitely its probably not the mapping rubric we have right now as far as moving forward, even just making our campus more accessible. It’s something that much like a lot of problems we’re facing basically as a society. These are things that we’re going to have to stay on. We’re gonna have to keep moving forward. There may never be an end to making everything more accessible. And honestly that isn’t an issue because it is something that constantly needs to be reworked and as long as there are people like us here at St. Joe’s, Penn has their accessibility thing, their accessibility Web site. I know there’s a couple of people out in Chicago who are keeping track of the accessibility restaurants in the area. As long as you use these people who, I guess act more as watchdogs for these people and try to keep at the forefront of everyone’s minds as we move forward with design. We can just continue to make the world more accessible and a better place not only of people with differing needs, but just for everyone.
G: Yeah, I think. I think that’s a good place to end our conversation today. Next week coming up, we’ve got on Monday, November 18th, we have an information session in Bronstein Hall about the map-athon that’s coming up. And that will hopefully help push us as a campus to start thinking about these design features in a more constructive way. So definitely come and check that out, whether you are reading along or listening, we thank you, and we’ll talk to you next time.
S: Have a good day.
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