Gelænder med lede-knop i Handicaporganisationernes Hus

A guide button on a railing shows which floor you are on.
© Disabled People’s Organisations Denmark

What is Universal Design?

The height of a doorstep, the lighting on the platform, and the duration of the green light at pedestrian crossings. Everywhere, design choices have been made that feel like small or large obstacles depending on who you are. In architecture, universal design is about shaping buildings and urban spaces that are usable for everybody.

Universal design is a concept used in various design disciplines. In architecture, it covers the goal of designing and shaping environments that consider human diversity. It focuses not only on the practical but also on aesthetic and sensory initiatives, so that everyone is included, regardless of body, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, culture, and age.

Universal Design Offers Multiple Solutions for All

At its core, universal design is about making things so that everyone can use them, without anyone needing something specially designed just for them. It also takes in to account that most people will sooner or later experience some form of disability, either temporarily or chronically. Universal design is not a single solution that fits everyone’s needs. Instead, it involves an interplay of solutions that offer choices so that everyone can find the option that suits their specific needs. Accessibility is part of the range of solutions that universal design offers, but the two concepts are not the same. Universal design goes further by focusing on the physical and psychological needs of all users.

Concept of Universal Design

The American architect and designer Ronald Mace introduced the term ‘universal design’ in the 1980s. He himself was a wheelchair user and worked to eliminate all unnecessary obstacles in our physical surroundings so that people with disabilities (particularly physical) could still learn, work, and contribute to society. In 1997, a group of researchers and architects, including Ronald Mace, formulated seven principles for universal design:

  1. Equitable Use: The design is inclusive and free of stigmatization for all.
  2. Flexibility in Use: Provides multiple use options to meet individual needs.
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use: Eliminates unnecessary complexity to be easily understood.
  4. Perceptible Information: Uses multiple senses to convey essential information and is compatible with assistive devices.
  5. Tolerance for Error: Minimizes risk and consequences of mistakes.
  6. Low Physical Effort: Requires minimal effort and allows a neutral body position.
  7. Size and Space for All: Passages and areas are spacious enough for all users.

Universal Design Evolves Over Time

Universal design is a flexible and changing concept – and it has been continually been refined. In 2012, Edward Steinfeld and Jordana Maisel formulated eight goals as an extension of Mace’s seven principles – particularly focusing on improving social participation, health, and well-being. The goals were also created to be measurable and easy to understand:

  1. Fit All Bodies
  2. Comfort
  3. Awareness
  4. Understanding
  5. Wellness
  6. Social Integration
  7. Personalization
  8. Respect for Context

Source: Rumsans

Universal Design in the World and Denmark

The concept has gained increased attention in recent years and was written into the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006, which formally introduced it into a Danish context. The concept is also perfectly aligned with the key phrase for the Sustainable Development Goals: “Leave no one behind.”

“Leave no one behind” was also the subtitle of the World Congress of Architects held in Copenhagen in 2023. The congress spawned 10 principles, all pointing towards more sustainable architecture – and where the first principle is: Dignity and agency for all people are fundamental in architecture, there is no beauty in exclusion

BUILD – Department of the Built Environment at Aalborg University also has a larger digital universe – Rumsans – about universal design that highlights good examples of creating inclusive and socially sustainable architecture. Concrete examples of universal design in architecture can be seen, for example, in the Copenhagen Centre for Cancer and Health or in the Handicaporganisationernes Hus. And Rumsans also has a wide range of examples. At Rumsans you can also read more about the concept and delve into the eight goals for universal design.

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