Inclusivity, a basis for design

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

“Form follows function” …


One of the most overused design clichés of all time. The original wording was in fact “form ever follows function” and although it is generally misquoted it is still widely accredited as the axiom of the modernist movement. Admittedly, it made sense at the time for architecture to reflect its purpose, but over a century later I have begun to wonder if this architectural design principle is still applicable or even relevant in the 21st century?


shifting the conversation…


I have always found the etymology of architecture to be as complex as it is profound with one of my favourite definitions being “architecture is a cultural symbol” pertaining to human ideologies and existence. If this description is accepted as true, then would architects not be the curators of these cultural symbols and would they not carry the responsibility of holistically designing for differently abled persons as a more accurate depiction of human life? In other words, could it be more fitting to state that form could follow multiple criteria including all-inclusive design principles?


In deference to modernism I am of the opinion that if an entire movement was built on a buildings external façade being generated from its purpose then it is not an inordinate leap to continue and evolve the design principle to extend to the occupants of the building. Perhaps it is time to shift the conversation to a subsequent movement of our time; aspiring to create a lived experience of all-inclusive space schemata that not only physically caters to differently abled persons in a utilitarian style, but also celebrates it as an experiential experience of space. The two notions are not mutually exclusive.


In the late 1990’s architect, product designer, and educator Ronald Mace led a team of designers and researchers to determine the 7 universal principles of product and environment design that easily transfers to the utility of a building, as set out below:

1) Equitable use: space or building components that are convenient to people with different abilities such as automated sliding doors in public spaces to assist families with baby strollers, or opting for outward opening doors when sliding doors are not an option to accommodate persons who require assisted mobility;

2) Flexibility in use combined with simple and intuitive use: creating pliable, perceptive and engaging areas such as lowered courtyards. Courtyards can become more flexible if they are lowered by not only allowing for social interactions but also as more expressed forms of quiet space. It would be perceptive to adequately address the level change for persons who require assisted mobility, and it would be engaging if the perceptive level change could activate the courtyards different uses. For instance, built-in pause areas could occur in the level change to further emphasize the idea of space for social interaction or as a breakaway space.

3) Perceptibility information: this could occur by synergising tactile flooring to creatively merge with floor layouts, or creating a focal point out of grab rails and different railing options;

4) Tolerance for error: using adjustable lighting to suit a buildings changing programme and thus ensuring occupants of the buildings are not unnecessarily straining their eyes;

5) Low physical effort: push button doors, or travellators; and

6) Size and space for approach and use: providing adequate entrance space for devices that assist mobility, or ensuring that appliances and fittings can be reached by standing or seated persons.


As a further resource, despite its unprogressive name, the “South African National Standards (SANS) 10400 - Part - S - Facilities for persons with disabilities” does exist as the minimum design guidelines for creating all-inclusive space. However, designers tend to use these guidelines towards the end of the design development stage in preparation for getting local authority building approvals. It goes without saying that all architectural and building design should be compliant, but what would happen if these same compliance and inclusivity principles were used to not only comply with the National Building Regulations but also to inspire the buildings design concept?


That brings us to the question of what would architecture look like if its form was conceived from innate and all-inclusive design principles? Despite the subjectivity of design, the universal design principles and National Building Regulations do provide a good point of departure for all-inclusive utilitarian building requirements. But, how could this influence and generate form? To answer this I have compiled my top 5 principles, which is by no means a comprehensive list, on using all-inclusive design as a generator for form as listed below:


1) A “sense of place” can start as soon as the buildings entrance. This threshold could provide an opportunity to express height transformations associated with the diversity of human beings;

2) Intuitive circulation space should allow differently abled persons to circulate in an independent and dignified manner. Level changes could be embraced and designed to occur in a multi-sensory way to create moment-by-moment experiences that are expressed as design elements of the building;

3) Building elements could be designed to symbolically reflect different components of the inclusivity narrative such as making portions of the buildings skin tactile;

4) Common areas could be generated by appropriate ergonomic and anthropometric studies that capture the kind of space that could be used in a seated or standing position, or with your eyes open or closed, or the ability to feel over hearing; and most importantly

5) Critically reviewing if differently abled persons have the same lived experience of the designed space.


To be truly impactful these ideologies should be implemented into the design process as soon as possible to challenge architects to embrace inclusivity guidelines as design generators and not use them as a compliance checklist. My aspiration is to create inspired architecture that allows for the independent and dignified movement of a wider range of people which is reflected and celebrated through the buildings shape and size.

#InclusiveDesign #ArchitectsDoingTheirPart #FormFollowsFunction #Architect #ArchitecturalDesignStudio #ArchitectJohannesburg



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