Architects Looking at Fully Accessible Buildings as Good Practice for Student Housing

by Katie Sloan

Buffalo, N.Y.— Study of UB Hall aims to develop new standards.

This common area at UB’s Greiner Hall shows features of universal design, including universally-designed furniture, window and outlet types, heights and layout. These features are not meant to look different from ordinary building elements in any way.Buffalo, N.Y.  — At Cannon Design, the architectural firm behind the newly opened William R. Greiner Hall, green-building strategies aren’t always focused on LEED points and energy conservation.

The firm, which recently won a regional AIA award for the 600-bed residence hall at the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB), created the entire building on universal design principles, which are voluntary specifications that go beyond ADA requirements.

The functional and aesthetic objective is to make the building accessible to people with disabilities, and to make those design adjustments barely noticeable to people without disabilities.

“The main focus is to make it transparent,” says Don Erb, UB’s director of residential facilities. “Things like contrasting colors between floors and walls so people with vision issues can see edges more clearly. For folks in wheelchairs, entrances and exits don’t require stairs or even ramps. There are many features like this you wouldn’t even pick up on. It’s not meant to show a lot of technology.”

In the case of Greiner Hall, universal design is also considered a green-building practice. It is expected to reduce the building’s carbon footprint because its accessible-to-all features require less future retrofitting.

“Universal design is an interesting spin on the idea of sustainability,” says James Rayburg, vice president of Cannon Design and project designer for Greiner Hall.
“About a decade ago, the university built some developer-grade apartments on campus. And they talked to us in the initial meetings about just how much money it costs them to repair units after students who are in wheelchairs have lived there. In other cases, they have to tear up whole kitchens and bathrooms to replace them because they didn’t think about how many students need those kinds of spaces.

“But things like larger showers can accommodate anyone – whether it’s someone in a wheelchair, or a football player who needs extra room.
These things don’t get us any LEED points, but in the end, they make the building more sustainable.”

The Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access, or Idea Center, at UB, plans to measure the effectiveness of Greiner’s universal design features with the aim of developing universal design standards for public buildings. The study is funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

“We make that same connection between universal design and environmental sustainability,” says Jonathan White, senior research support specialist on the Greiner Hall study. “Just like LEED has points for accessibility, our [universal design] standards have quite a few more [points for sustainability].”
The study, Rayburg says, will help develop “a palette of strategies” that can be easily incorporated and applied to future universal design projects, making them easier to roll out.
“Universal design is design that fits everybody,” White says. But of course it’s impossible to fit everybody. By designing to a set of standards, buildings can come as close as possible to being open to all.”

The study will be underway in January, and all findings should be complete by 2015. White says the aim is for builders to adopt universal design standards in the same way LEED requirements are applied and evaluated. The metrics for the study are being developed following an ANSI (American National Standards Institute) approved process.


– Lynn Peisner

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