Embracing Universal Design – Equal Access for All

by Nicole Knox, PE, CESCL

Last month, I attended the Association for Learning Environments Pacific Northwest Regional Conference in Banff, Alberta. The conference theme was Resilience: Creating Adaptable Learning Environments. What better place to discuss adaptable environments than in the middle of one of Canada’s most beautiful national parks, the 125-year-old Banff Springs Resort.

Although it’s been around since the 1920s, I discovered the Association for Learning Environments a few years ago and found a group of professionals with a passion for designing, managing and improving schools and places where children learn. After attending last year’s Pacific Northwest Regional Conference, I’d been looking forward to this year’s conference for months. It didn’t hurt that the conference was held in Banff (!) and there were a few other friendly faces from Anchorage in attendance.

Banff Springs Resort, Canada.

I have always enjoyed the school design work I’ve been a part of here at R&M. From designing an elementary school ice rink in Anchorage, to a complete school replacement in Marshall near the Yukon River, the facilities, regardless of size, are important to the communities they serve. As a civil engineer with a hand in the design of the built environment, I have also found so many of the elements that make great school sites, also make great public facility sites in general.

The conference covered a lot of great topics, including design, construction, renovation, facility management and inclusive learning. I was especially inspired by topics that touched on the principles of Universal Design: Equitable Use, Flexibility in Use, Simple and Intuitive, Perceptible Information, Tolerance for Error, Low Physical Effort, and Size and Space for Approach and Use.

The opening day keynote speaker was Bill Ptacek, CEO of the Calgary Public Library. He joked about being surprised by the invitation to speak at a “schools conference,” but it was truly a great fit. Libraries are public learning spaces trying to adapt to new technology. The Calgary community is eagerly awaiting the 2018 completion of a new 240,000 SF Central Library. While describing the design process for the new library, one thing that stuck with me was how Bill wanted the facility as a whole to be intuitive. He wanted first time visitors to be able to easily navigate the site, find the main entrance, explore the building and naturally find the location that best suits their needs. I will take that simple concept and carry it forward into my site designs for all types of facilities.

Bill Ptacek, CEO of the Calgary Public Library.

For me, the highlight of the conference was the presentation by Darby Lee Young, an Accessibility Strategist and founder of Level Playing Field – an accessibility agency based in Calgary. Darby has cerebral palsy and is a former para-alpine ski racer who, it turns out, competed at Alyeska years ago. With a lifetime of experience overcoming barriers, her team consults with designers and facility owners on universal design. She believes everyone should have the chance to move throughout their lives and around their communities independently.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) Standards for Accessible Design are the minimum enforceable accessibility standards. This often involves designing access specifically for people with disabilities. Instead of making separate accommodations for those with disabilities, universal design takes it a much needed step further. Why not strive to make all aspects of a facility easily usable and accessible for all people? It is so often the better, more intuitive solution. I look forward to reviewing site designs in greater depth and from a different perspective. Perhaps a little change could build upon the ADA design guidelines and work better for an electric wheelchair or scooter. Darby, with a great sense of humor, showed a video of herself trying to navigate an accessible ramp with her scooter. She was triumphant in the end, but just one switchback of the code-acceptable ramp required a 5-point turn and a lot of time, effort and frustration. The ramp also appeared to be somewhere at the back of the building, not at the main entrance. After seeing Darby’s presentation I will think more critically about incorporating low effort pedestrian facilities that can be used equally by all.

Nicole Knox at the Johnston Canyon Trail.

Eager to get out and explore on my first evening in Banff, I did a little research and found a nearby trail that sounded like the perfect way to stretch my legs after a long flight. I was happily surprised to find out the first kilometer of the Johnston Canyon Trail is designed to be accessible. A combination of gently sloping paved trail sections and catwalks anchored right into the canyon walls lead to an incredible waterfall and open the experience up to people with mobility and vision disabilities, seniors, children and parents with strollers. And honestly, I found that first kilometer to be perfect for me too, an able-bodied first time visitor. I was able to take in the jaw-dropping sights and feel sure-footed on the trail. It was a short section of the overall trail, but was pretty close to being universally accessible. There was no separate route for wheelchairs, no retro-fitted ramps installed right next to stairways. The single route was designed for everyone to use and enjoy equally. In the spirit of the old ‘if we can put a man on the moon’ standard, I now keep thinking to myself, “If we can put a universally accessible walkway through a canyon, we can get universal access to this building!”

Nicole Knox, PE, CESCL – Group Manager of Site Development

As R&M’s Group Manager for Site Development, Nicole enjoys working on energized teams to enhance her community and communities across Alaska. She is highly regarded for her attention to detail and excels at coordinating with project teams and review agencies. Her focus over the past 12 years at R&M has been working on large and small, public and private site development projects, each with their own unique challenges. Nicole has provided existing condition assessments and civil site design for numerous schools, parks and public facilities in Anchorage and around the state. She holds a B.S. in Civil Engineering from University of Alaska Anchorage and is a professional civil engineer registered in Alaska.