Universal Design Does Not Mean Ugly Design

One of the most common misconceptions about universal design and accessible design in general is that it is ugly. That the focus is on functionality instead of beauty, and that the necessary modifications to create accessibility inherently ruin the lines of a structure. This is used as an excuse to go lax on development requirements that might otherwise encourage or require architects and developers to include accessibility in design plans, and it’s used to justify the refusal to build accessible structures or modify structures to make them accessible. Because it would ruin the aesthetics, and everyone knows form is more important than function.

I call this a misconception, but really it’s a blatant lie. There’s no reason accessible design can’t be absolutely beautiful, just as there’s no reason inaccessible design can’t be absolutely hideous. The beauty of a piece of architecture lies in the skill of the designer. Someone considering access and inclusion from the ground up who is also skilled with aesthetics is going to produce a beautiful building that is also fully accessible. After all, disabled people like pretty houses too.

Two remarkable examples of beautiful and accessible design come to mind for me when I think about this issue.

The first is a home Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to build in 1949 for a World War Two vet. The Laurent House is a masterpiece both from an accessibility standpoint and from an architectural one. Wright was an incredibly skilled designer and there’s a reason many of his homes are maintained as a museums1. Because they are stunning and amazing and compelling, and being inside one feels not just like being in a home, but like being inside a work of art that has been designed with habitability in mind.

Wright’s design was specifically intended not just to make the home accessible and welcoming to the owner, but to actively facilitate life for a wheelchair user. The fittings and fixtures were optimised for the owner and some of the finest aesthetic details were meant to be appreciated from a seated, not standing, position. This highlights the fact that ‘pretty’ inaccessible design is often also intended to be appreciation from a specific posture: that of a standing bipedal of at least average height. Wright turned assumptions about utility and accessibility on their heads with a design which was constructed well before the Americans with Disabilities Act, illustrating that whatever people may think, accessibility has been a consideration for decades.

Fort Belvoir in Virginia features another example of stunning universal design. Architect Michael Graves worked with the army to develop homes suitable for wounded soldiers with designs intended to facilitate independence as well as aesthetics. The fittings and fine details are all focused on mobility and accessibility, from plenty of space in the drive for a van to lowered counters to make it easier to cook while sitting. Aesthetically, the homes are beautiful, with an open, airy, contemporary look.

Graves’ homes reflect a combination of aesthetic consideration, consultation with accessibility experts, and direct conversations with disabled veterans and wounded active-duty soldiers who talked about their needs in a residence. The resulting facilitated designs are harmonious and quite lovely, illustrating that making a building accessible doesn’t mean having to pay an aesthetic price. That, in fact, the very same measures designed to enhance accessibility can also make a structure more beautiful, particularly for the resident who will be inhabiting that environment and navigating it. It’s also a highly flexible design that welcomes people at all levels of ability status, rather than limiting comfort in the home to only some.

Accessibility doesn’t mean ugliness. It doesn’t mean garish rails and utilitarian trim and squat, ugly buildings that are utterly focused on utility with no thought at all as to what they might look like. And people need to stop repeating these lies, because they make it extremely hard to promote, let alone demand, accessible design. When people hear ‘accessible housing’ or ‘disabled housing,’ they usually think of tragic, hideous structures that they don’t want in their neighbourhoods because they will drag property values down and look sad. They don’t think of beautiful homes that may well add value to their homes, creating a house that is truly a home for the resident, instead of a place assembled with a minimum of consideration in mind.

For homeowners preparing to build homes, there’s a powerful incentive to consider universal design if they can get over the idea that it means making a home ugly. Not just because they might need it someday, but because it can add value. Accessible homes that are also beautiful are multipurpose; they can be sold to any buyer, but particularly to a disabled buyer with an interest in feeling comfortable at home without giving up on aesthetic goals.

With growing numbers of older adults in this country, many of whom experience mobility problems, there’s going to be an ever-larger market for accessible homes that are also beautiful places to live, because no one really wants to reside in a bleak box with no character, no hope, and no interesting features.

Many people with disabilities can’t afford to buy homes, let alone gorgeous works of architecture. Pushing for universal design can change that, though, by making sure that cute, affordable, nice homes are accessible too, because people will start to understand that ‘cute’ and ‘nice’ are not antonyms to ‘accessible.’ This is one of the few cases where people can have their cake and eat it too.

  1. Including this one.