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We review Selwyn Goldsmith's book on reform of current legislation affecting disabled people, and a guide to wheelchair housing Designing for the disabled? BY JOHN PENTON


The aj review of Selwyn Goldsmith's third edition of Designing for the Disabled in 1976 described it as 'a remarkable document and a singular achievement'. That judgement has been fully vindicated with the book becoming an internationally recognised source of technical information on meeting the needs of people with disabilities in building design. It remains in print, available from riba Publications.

What the book provides is a comprehensive source of reference about an area of design of which most architects are lamentably ignorant. Its influence has been wider still. Part M of the Building Regulations in 1987 was greatly flawed. Its substantial improvement in 1992 owed much to the data in Goldsmith's earlier book.

Designing for the Disabled: the New Paradigm1 is different in character despite the similarity of title. In it Goldsmith traces the history of the development of standards and legislation in some detail, leading to a critical polemic on the current Part M Regulations and the Disability Discrimination Act (dda). He sees the dda as weak legislation which he wishes to replace with a new Part M, imposing detailed constraints on building designers, administered by bcos (Building Control Officers). Designers would be required to negotiate with bcos on their design provisions from a menu of choices that Goldsmith proposes.

In his new book he sets out the concept of architectural disablement - people unable to do what they want in a building because of impediments it puts in their way. These disabled people include those medically classified as physically and mentally disabled but also any others 'disabled' by designs, such as those with pushchairs or women underprovided with wcs. Selwyn Goldsmith's standpoint has been that of a practitioner. He has invariably claimed to speak as an architect and yet admits to little if any experience of architectural practice. But does this concept of architectural disablement reflect the reality of practice? He seems to be placing the entire responsibility for the formation of the built environment on the shoulders of the architect - a judgement which even the most arrogant of practitioners would be unlikely to defend. How buildings are procured, who determines their design priorities, how they fall within an accepted social framework - all affect how buildings can best serve the needs of the widest possible spectrum of the population.

Architects can, of course, contribute to improving the lot of disabled people. Goldsmith's lack of confidence that architects will take up the opportunities for change to which the dda can lead is disappointing. We should not need to revert to a situation of all building design being subjected to the scrutiny and approval of bureaucrats to meet the needs of the population as it really is. So Goldsmith's drafting of new regulations in the form of a revised Part M can only be less than helpful, especially when they are based on some highly subjective judgement criteria rather than verifiable research, for instance in the case of handrail profiles.

Goldsmith turns much of his attention to the Americans with Disabilities Act. This influenced the dda, but he argues that the dda is weak in comparison, in that it lacks any adequate code on which it can be based. He does also note the danger of the us code, which is focused on getting veterans back to work, of failing to include the needs of many people who are architecturally disabled.

In focusing on regulation, Goldsmith is perhaps underrating the valuable effect common law can have within our own legal system. The capacity to build up judgements over time to establish a body of acceptable practice is one of its great strengths. It is this process which is now beginning to be applied to the issue of how the built environment may be made appropriately useable by people with disabilities. It is the approach of the dda rather than of Part M. In that context, the power of legal precedent to 'recommend' may be more effective than the power of Regulations to 'require'.

Even more important, Goldsmith largely ignores the fact that Part M either as it exists or in his revision applies to the design of new buildings, whereas the dda also applies to the alteration of existing buildings and to the operation of all buildings in public use. To this extent, the dda goes far beyond Goldsmith's book; it is about the creation and management of an inclusive environment.

The legislative momentum for the dda could never have been achieved without focusing upon the needs of people with disabilities (rather than all 'architecturally disabled').

Ironically, it is only now that Goldsmith is prepared to say that he makes 'no apologies for joining the universal design camp' (buildings which as far as possible are designed for all, including disabled people, as opposed to having special features for disabled people). It has taken long enough.

The book is largely an anecdotal polemic and as such is inevitably selective. Some descriptions of events surrounding the Access Committee for England are not wholly reliable. The importance of scrupulous ergonomic research, some of which Goldsmith has elected to disregard, should not be ignored. Equally, 'Information on Access to and Movement within and around Buildings and on Certain Facilities for Disabled People' (bsi pd6523: 1989) is completely left out. Yet it was that document which reviewed the Codes of Practice and Building Regulations from 16 different countries and provinces, directing attention to the British Columbia Building Code which was radically to affect the revision of Part M during 1991. It was a first in giving reasons for its stated requirements alongside each of the regulatory clauses. In doing so it placed 'disability' requirements in the context of 'normal' design.

Despite all this, the book is of great interest. Goldsmith's importance is undisputed in achieving recognition of the design requirements of the widest possible spectrum of human characteristics. In his new book he has traced his own personal odyssey in pursuing that goal. It represents a heroic achievement.

What he has not done, despite offering his new Part M to the world, is to provide a new manual for architects and others to enable them to design for the needs of people with disabilities. The achievement of that end might better have been served through publication of the likes of Stephen Thorpe's Wheelchair Housing Design Guide, which deserves the widest possible attention by all architects.

Wheelchair housing

When the doe published Wheelchair Housing (hdd Occasional paper 2/75), there was a large public-sector housing programme. It introduced the term 'wheelchair housing', which remains in use, distinct from 'mobility housing', 'visitable housing' or 'lifetime homes', all of which are housing offering some basic measure of accessibility for wheelchair users and people with other disabilities. Wheelchair housing is new-build housing specifically designed to meet the needs of wheelchair users.

As such, it is something of a rarity, now that social housebuilding has been much diminished, and is now mainly created by housing associations with partial funding from the Housing Corporation. Certainly private housebuilders have no interest in developing wheelchair housing at all and scant interest in producing housing offering even basic levels of accessibility.

In that context, the timing of Wheelchair Housing2 is opportune. It has been produced in conjunction with the Housing Corporation and replaces the corporation's guidance as set out in 'Appendix 2 Wheelchair User Requirements' of the current Scheme Development Standards (August 1995).

Its great strength is that this book draws on the accumulated wisdom of the National Wheelchair Housing Association Group. The only regrettable omission is the Margaret Blackwood Housing Association in Scotland, which has unique experience of providing wheelchair housing in very adverse climate conditions.

This design guide is an extremely valuable document. Its clear structure follows a sequence of 15 domestic activities. Each activity comprises illustrated statements on principles, design, requirements and recommendations. There are also five very useful appendices: a summary of requirements, a checklist of best practice, Building Regulations, Secured by Design and Using a Wheelchair.

Thorpe's clear, freehand-style illustrations will be familiar to many architects. The 18 inset wheelchair-user profiles give a telling picture of the diverse range of individual requirements.

Although this is a design guide for domestic wheelchair housing, it is certainly also more than that. Its guidance is thorough, comprehensive and of a much wider application. It represents a body of work and experience which should be used by all architects.

John Penton is a consultant architect. His book on the dda will be published by riba Publications in the New Year.

1 Designing for the Disabled: the New Paradigm. Selwyn Goldsmith. Architectural Press. 448pp. £45.

2 Wheelchair Housing Design Guide. Stephen Thorpe. National Wheelchair Housing Group. From crc, 0171 505 6622. 83pp. £17.50 plus £1.75 p&p. Special offer for aj readers, £14 post-free

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