Discriminating design should go beyond disability dogma
Back in 1961, Selwyn Goldsmith wrote Designing for the Disabled . At the time the notion that the wheelchairbound had a right to demand access to public buildings was barely acknowledged. Forty years on, it is enshrined in law, and Goldsmith has written Universal Design ; a book which is likely to prompt controversy with its claim that for-the-disabled design is in fact both socially exclusive and offensively discriminatory.
His contention, which he sets out in detail in this week's practice section, is that buildings should be accessible to all. He points out that by prioritising the capabilities of an independent wheelchair user, British Standards on access discriminate against, for example, those in assisted wheelchairs or parents with double pushchairs. Goldsmith's axiom is 'make it more spacious'. A simple maxim: and an ideal to which everybody would subscribe. Few architects would balk at the prospect of designing universally accessible buildings, given an unlimited budget and a generous site. Space standards come into their own when pressures of budget and brief generally conspire to make generosity impossible.
Certainly there are those who are not served by the current regulations. This does not make the regulations redundant. It simply suggests that they are not demanding enough. More generous minimum standards would be great but, as ever, practicalities interfere. It is easy to insist on much larger WC's in a public building, but trickier to stomach the fact that the expense may lead to cost-cutting elsewhere, or that the additional space requirement could compromise the remainder of the plan. The trade-off is even less acceptable in buildings with a very specific user group, where larger spaces may not be required.
Regulations on access requirements have their place, but we should not be fearful of deviating from them when appropriate. It may be time to rewrite the rule book - the updated Code of Practice on access for the disabled is due out later this year - but it is also time to decide that the code should not be dogma, but a starting point, and that each case should be judged on its own merits.