For architect and Yale professor Joel Sanders, equitable, accessible design starts with changing the settings. The challenge facing professionals, planners, and elected officials is to look past the traditional default.
“In general, the default user the profession thinks about when designing a building is an able-bodied, young, cisgender, white, secular user,” Sanders says. “It’s a consequence of how architects are trained and practice.”
Sanders believes the design profession is at a crossroads when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
The desire to showcase how social inclusion is connected to building design led Sanders, transgender historian Susan Stryker, and legal scholar Terry Kogan, to launch a design firm and consultancy, MIXdesign, focused on issues of accessibility and universal design. They’ve also launched Stalled, an initiative to raise awareness of inclusive bathroom design, as well as offering open-source blueprints. Now, a year after Stalled’s launch, Sanders feels he’s learned a lot about promoting the design needs of “non-conforming bodies, genders, and religions.”
Often, when the profession talks about disability, or designing for all users, it focuses on designing for mobility issues. Mobility is an important consideration and a focus of legislation such as the Americans With Disabilities Act, but it is not the only form of accessibility architects should address.
“We need to cast a wider net across not just physical disabilities, but people with visual or acoustic challenges, as well as the entire spectrum of race, gender, and religion,” says Sanders.
The Stalled initiative used the question of how to design bathrooms to provide the transgender community with better access—inspired by the raft of so-called “bathroom bills”—to show how a more open-ended approach to design can help the wider public. The Stalled proposal—which included single-stall restrooms, floorplans meant to guarantee mobility access, as well as layouts that guaranteed privacy—was meant to exemplify design that “casts a wider net” in terms of looking at how different users approach the same space and task.
Stalled initially grew out of work that Sanders, Stryker, and Kogan were doing around design history and research, and the approach continues to inform their work today. Including a historian and legal scholar within the design team offers important context, and helps navigate—and, ideally, one day reform—building codes.
“We need to hear from the users,” Sanders says. “We saw that everyone thought of this as a problem of safety. The bathroom is a place that’s a focus of social anxiety, and continues to be so.”
The Stalled team has promoted its vision within the design community, presenting its findings to New York City government as well as at the AIA Conference on Architecture earlier this summer, and completing model retrofits for clients such as Galludet University. Ideally, according to Sanders, this work and advocacy becomes one, leading to blueprints for common sense building code reform as well as floorplans that other architects and designers can use.
“Right now, everyone is left to their own devices to figure it out themselves,” says Sanders. “A university may put together a task force. Others see the solution as just a matter of signage and icons. But the public needs to understand it’s an important issue that needs designers, and ultimately laws and guidelines that facilitate this process.”
Since MIXDesign launched, the group has also gotten inquiries from federal government agencies looking at how the types of renovations and designs championed by the Stalled initiative could work on a larger scale.
“We need to think across all these different user needs,” says Sanders. “The solutions we find will enhance everyone’s lives.”