030: Interview with Danise Levine, Universal Design Champion

Good Fit Poor Fit
Good Fit Poor Fit
030: Interview with Danise Levine, Universal Design Champion

Show Notes

Innovative Solutions for Universal Design (isUD) Certification

Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA) at the University of Buffalo.

Hampton Inn Amherst article.

The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh project.


Sarah: You’re listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. A podcast that explores the interaction between people, design, and activity. Good Fit Poor Fit is part of The Universal Design Project, a nonprofit organization with a vision for every community across the USA to have a surplus of homes and opportunities for social participation that are universally and financially accessible.

[00:00:27] Learn more at universaldesign.org. 

[00:00:31] Welcome everyone. I’m glad to have you all back for another episode with us. This is number 30 to be exact. Today Rebecca and I are going to talk about some of the work being done at the University of Buffalo Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access or IDEA. I-D-E-A. And we’re talking with the assistant director herself, Danise Levine. They have a certification program called isUD that they’re implementing into public and commercial buildings and facilities. And we wanted to learn more about that as well as the details that went into their recently finished hotel project. 

[00:01:09] This Hampton Inn has been labeled the first universally designed certified hotel in the country. I know many people who travel with disabilities my family included and are always worried about their accommodations so I’m really excited to hear how this hotel may pave the way for new ones in the future. So without too much additional chit chat for me I’m going to pass it off to Rebecca so she can introduce our guest. 

[00:01:36] Rebecca: So as Sarah mentioned, we have a special guest joining us today, and I could certainly read her impressive resume and background to you, but I’d much rather you get to hear it straight from the “multi-tasker” and “super-mom” herself. So without further ado, let me introduce you to Danise Levine.  Welcome to Good Fit Poor Fit! How would you like to introduce yourself to our listeners? 

[00:01:58] Danise: Well, first I want to say thank you so much for having me on, and I’m excited to talk about all things related to universal design and something that’s near and dear to my heart, which is modifying the environment to make it more usable to everyone.

[00:02:13] Just to tell you a little bit more about myself, as you mentioned, I am the Assistant Director at the IDEA Center, but I’m also a registered architect. And also, I’m a certified aging in place specialist. I’ve been working at the IDEA Center for about 24 years now. And my expertise is in the areas of ADA compliance, universal design, aging in place, and home modifications. And of all the things that I do at the IDEA Center, as you mentioned I do wear a lot of hats in the center, but of all the things that I do, on a day to day basis, I think doing home modifications is probably the thing that I enjoy most about my job. And to date, I’ve designed over a thousand home modification projects.

[00:02:55] Most of those which were funded by a state agency but that includes doing modifications in both single family homes and also group homes. And since the day I became an architect, the one thing I’ve always wanted to do is change people’s lives for the better and alter the way they interact with their environments.

[00:03:12] And I think there’s no better way or place to do it than where they spend most of their time and their days and things that they can call their own and they share with their families. So that’s pretty much just the  background on me and feel free, you know, during this podcast, to ask me any more questions about some of the work that I’m doing.

[00:03:32]We will talk about some of the projects I’m doing. Like, you mentioned the hotel, but there are also, I think, other significant projects that may be of interest to your audience. 

[00:03:42] Sarah: I can’t wait to learn more about you and the projects you’ve been working on so yeah thanks so much for sharing that. 

[00:03:49] Rebecca:  And especially because I think a lot of what you talk about aligns so well with what we do here, in terms of, you know, thinking about that space that is so personal and so important to people in terms of their home. And I think that we all share that passion for making that space really work for people and finding out what’s a good fit for people in that really important space, especially now, since we’re all spending so much time there.

[00:04:14] Sarah: Exactly. 

[00:04:15] Rebecca: So, can you tell us a little bit more about your work through the IDEA Center and isUD? 

[00:04:23] Danise: Sure. So I’m not sure if everybody knows about our center. We’re located within the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Buffalo. And basically we’re essentially a multidisciplinary center of excellence and our staff is made up of people from all different backgrounds.

[00:04:39] So we have architects, we have urban planners, we have a gerontologist, we have a behavioral psychologist. We have an occupational therapist and we have some industrial engineers. So we all bring something a little bit different to the table. And we very much embrace the whole team concept. So most of the projects we work on, everybody’s making a contribution to them.

[00:05:02]But also something else to know, that we’re proud of is that we typically employ graduate students from all different departments within the university. So we currently have about 10. And we get them very involved in the actual work that we’re doing and the research that we’re doing so that when they graduate and they go out into the working world, they’re basically passing along all of the knowledge that we’ve taught them and spreading it beyond our reach.

[00:05:30] So, we’re very proud of that. And we make sure that we involve them in pretty much everything that we do. The center was started in 1984. And all of our work is based on the concept of universal design. So basically what we do is, we produce knowledge and tools to increase equity and inclusion for groups who have been marginalized by traditional design practices.

[00:05:53] And to say that in simpler terms, by focusing our work on advancing equity and inclusion, Our hope is to create a safe, inclusive, and more empowering world for all. 

[00:06:07] And you did mention isUD briefly. Like you said, it stands for Innovative Solutions for Universal Design. Basically what this is, it’s a certification program that’s similar to the LEED certification program that is from the US Green Building Council. Most people are more familiar with that. But our certification program focuses on universal design instead of green building. And, we’ve been working on the development of the program for about 10 years and some people, you know, are probably wondering why we did this.

[00:06:40] And until recently, designers had very little resources to assist them in incorporating universal design into their projects. And to solve this problem, we decided to tackle this head on and we’ve developed a list of over 700 evidence-based universal design strategies that could basically be incorporated into any project.

[00:07:02] And the ultimate goal is once these, adopters, start incorporating the strategies into their projects, they will become certified. And, all of the strategies are based on years and years of research and knowledge translation of projects that we’ve done over the course of  20 plus years of having the research center.

[00:07:22] And, you know, what we want to do is incorporate all the latest knowledge and best practices into the strategies. Right now the isUD only applies to public buildings, but our goal, ultimately, is to develop standards for use in housing. We’ve also recently taken on two new projects that are outdoor environments.

[00:07:42] One is an outdoor garden and one is an outdoor playground, a fully inclusive playground. So we want to be able to apply those strategies to outdoor environments as well. So that’s a little bit about the isUD certification program.

[00:07:59] Up until now, we’ve had many corporations and companies come to us to implement isUD into their buildings or their projects. And right now I can just give you a quick list of some of the projects we’ve done and some of them that we’re currently doing. 

[00:08:15] Some of the ones we’ve previously done is The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. And that was actually the first building to receive our certification. And they’re the first museum in the country to receive it. The Hampton Inn by Hilton, that’s completed. That’s in Amherst, New York, which is a suburb of Buffalo. I’m currently doing a project called Hansa which is a coworking and shared environment building that tomorrow I will be doing the final walkthrough to ensure that they have received the proper number of points to get certification. 

[00:08:49] We’re currently doing a project with the Pittsburgh International Airport. I’m working on an inclusive playground called Motion Junction, which I mentioned previously that will be in Canandaigua and it’s fully inclusive.

[00:09:02] A playground for everyone. We’ve also done work for Proctor and Gamble and Pricewaterhouse, some of the fortune 50 companies. So that’s sort of in a nutshell, some of the bigger profile projects that we’ve been involved in. But I’m happy to talk about the Hampton Inn by Hilton because I think that that’s a really good project that will show you how you could incorporate more usable strategies into a building where you don’t necessarily know who the users are going to be. You don’t know where they’re coming from. You don’t know what their abilities are. You don’t know how long they’re staying. You don’t know what language they speak.

[00:09:42]You don’t know what their preferences are. So, buildings such as museums and, hotels, and airports even are great because you sort of know who your audience is going to be, but you don’t. 

[00:09:54] Rebecca: That’s so interesting. I had actually never thought of that in terms of  not really knowing all of those details of a user and as an occupational therapist, especially,  we think so much about  the values and the habits of individuals and the people that we work with. And so that’s a perspective that’s hard to take. And I imagine that’s a particular challenge in working in public spaces.

[00:10:20] And I definitely want to hear more about the hotel, but before we dive into that, can you tell us a little bit more about the certification? Like, do you use a checklist type system? How was that organized?  What are the points that you referred to to get something certified?

[00:10:42] Danise: It’s going to sound complex. I’m going to try and make it as simple as possible because it’s not all that complex, but we do have an online checklist that anybody can go onto our website and create a project. And typically what would happen is someone would express interest in wanting to  review the strategies or get their building certified and they can go onto our website.

[00:11:08] They could create an account. And once they create an account, there’s a lot of different types of strategies that we include there. I mean, there’s over 700, so we had to organize them in a meaningful and user friendly way. So, someone can go on and create a project. So let’s say you are designing a building such as a hotel. You’re designing an office building, or you have an existing building that you would like to see if your building meets certification. You can go in and look at the strategies and check the strategies that you have already met.

[00:11:42] And once you check a strategy, as you go in and you check the strategy, you will see that the point system will calculate every time you check a strategy. 

[00:11:52] Rebecca: Oh, okay. That makes sense. And it doesn’t seem too complex.  

[00:11:57] Sarah: Yeah, it seems like it’s very user friendly as well as it gives you information right on the spot with different scores for how universal it is or not. But I think that’s a great way to transition and talking about the hotel we mentioned earlier.

[00:12:12] Rebecca: Yeah. So you had mentioned that you recently worked on the first universally designed certified hotel in Buffalo. How did universal design creep up and enter this project?  

[00:12:23] Danise: That’s a great question. So the area that this hotel is built in, it’s called Amherst, New York, and there is currently a large skating center located in that area. It’s called the North Town Center. And that skating center is an accessible skating center and they hold a lot of US-led hockey tournaments throughout the year. And USA sled hockey sponsors many events at that location. And you have athletes who are disabled and their families coming from all over the country to attend these events.

[00:12:58] And what was realized is that there were not enough hotels in the area to accommodate all of the athletes coming to the location. So what the town of Amherst wanted to do was they wanted to have a hotel built implementing universal design so that it would accommodate everybody. Because although some of these athletes are disabled, they’re also in really great shape and not all of them will need fully ADA compliant rooms.

[00:13:28] And when people go to book hotels, many times in typical hotels, they have the minimum number of accessible rooms available. Which is 5%. So a lot of times there were not enough rooms to go around when all of these athletes and their families were congregating in the area. So what Amherst wanted to do is they wanted to have a hotel that implemented universal design so it would be a location that would be more usable to everyone. And it happens to be that the land that they were providing was adjacent to the skating center. So it was located in very close proximity to where  all these events would take place. So, they worked with a company called Uniland, a local development company in the area.

[00:14:13] And they recruited me to be a consultant in universal design to help them implement our standards into this hotel. It was really a great project. We thought it was a very socially responsible approach to go beyond just minimal accessibility compliance and pay attention to things that aren’t included in accessibility, like wellness and some other things.

[00:14:40] So, this is a Hampton Inn by Hilton. So it’s the very first universal design hotel in Hilton’s global portfolio and they have over 6,000 properties. And this is actually the first hotel in the country to be certified with universal design. 

[00:14:57] Rebecca: That’s so exciting. Hopefully it will start a trend.

[00:15:01] Danise: That’s what we’re hoping. We’re hoping one of the things we see is that you can talk about universal design and you can explain to people what it is. And I think most people get it, but until you actually show them in person and they’re able to experience it, I think that’s where it makes its greatest impact.

[00:15:20] Rebecca: Absolutely. What do you hope the consumers will experience when they stay in relation to the design of the hotel? 

[00:15:27] Danise: Well, we were very careful in including things that were very subtly integrated into the overall design because we certainly don’t want people to mistaken this hotel for an accessible hotel or a hotel for people with disabilities.

[00:15:43] That couldn’t be further from the truth, because as we know, accessibility and universal design are not interchangeable, they’re not the same, it’s not same meaning, and we don’t want people using the word accessibility or applying accessible features when we’re talking about universal design.

[00:16:02] When we do universal design, we assume that the building is already accessible because that’s required by law. We want to go beyond that. So some of the things we wanted to do in the hotel was just provide features that blend into the overall environment and seamlessly integrate into the overall design.

[00:16:22] So when people walk in, they know it’s a little different for some reason in a positive sense, but they’re not really sure because everything just seems in place and everything seems usable and more friendly and inviting and safe. 

[00:16:35] Rebecca: Yeah. Just kind of simple, like everything works. That’s kind of what we look for, Sarah, when we’re working with designers and architects. Don’t you think?

[00:16:44] Danise: Yeah, absolutely. 

[00:16:45] Sarah: And I think that’s kind of the idea we want people to have with universal design. Like you said, it goes beyond what people think is accessible in terms of being used just for people with disabilities. But we really want them to go into a building. And have everything in its place and it just works well. It just seems like it works well. 

[00:17:06] And people don’t even realize all of the little things that went into it because the people who designed it analyzed the space so well, if that makes sense. 

[00:17:16] Danise: Yeah and sometimes, you know, the word accessibility or accessible stigmatizes, something. Like, you know, you walk into a public restroom and there’s an accessible stall?

[00:17:25] And some people are afraid to use it because they think it’s only for people with disabilities and, you know, it’s there so that people with disabilities can use a bathroom comfortably, but other people are allowed to use it. People who may be pushing a baby carriage and coming in to use the bathroom with a young child or someone at an airport that has a lot of luggage. The space could benefit everybody. The convenience of it could benefit everybody.

[00:17:51] So we certainly don’t ever want to stigmatize an environment or a product as being purely for people with disabilities. We want everyone to be able to use it, including people with disabilities. So some of the notable features that I think  were really wonderfully integrated into the hotel is a lot of oversized circulation paths and primary routes of travel.

[00:18:15] We wanted to provide lots of ample space for guests of all abilities to travel throughout the building very comfortably. We wanted them to be able to move around, pulling luggage, or pushing carts, or using a wheelchair, or using a scooter. I mean, you don’t know what sort of assistive devices people are using.

[00:18:35] And people might come with large families and young children. So we wanted to make sure that everyone could move around the building very comfortably, whether it’s in the lobby or in the hallways or in the restroom. So that’s one of the things that we wanted to do. 

[00:18:49] And something that goes along with that is providing very generous clearances and turning spaces throughout the facility so that anybody using a wheeled mobility device, a cart, like I said, a baby carriage, has the ability to turn around and not get stuck at dead ends. So those two things sort of mesh together, circulation paths and ample space and turning clearances, and access to the breakfast area or access to approach tables or seating areas. 

[00:19:21] Those were really important to us. Another thing we wanted to do, and this also builds upon what we just talked about is providing a guest-centered lobby area with very generous space to accommodate people who are making transactions at the front desk.

[00:19:37] And at the same time, the lobby area typically becomes a place for social interaction and lounging. And we wanted to encourage that. We wanted to encourage that area to be welcoming, and we wanted people to be able to socialize there. Because that’s what people do a lot of times, they want to interact. Especially now with COVID, every opportunity for social interaction. I think people are just clamoring for.  

[00:20:02] Rebecca: Absolutely. I also think what you were mentioning about those open spaces and plenty of room is really a universal design feature that does work for everyone. As you said, there are so many reasons that just having that open space is really helpful. Even now, like with COVID, a big open space will have plenty of room for people to stay away from each other, you know, keep that six feet.

[00:20:29] And I think that that’s a really common feature, even that we’ve tried to put into a lot of areas in the home like kitchens and living areas that are very open, for all different things, whether you’re, you know, bringing in a ton of groceries or using a mobility device. 

[00:20:47] Danise: Mhmm.

[00:20:47] Sarah: And it really sounds like you were, like you said, going beyond the ADA. And you’re trying to think about all the little tasks people would do in and around the hotel. And really analyze it for anyone who could use it with a wide variety of impairments. And I think that’s, what’s really unique about what you did with the hotel. You’re not just checking off those ADA boxes.

[00:21:11]You’re analyzing how people are going to move around the lobby or in their different rooms or at the. The front desk or even in the breakfast area. And also looking at how people interact with each other. 

[00:21:25] Danise: Yeah. And following up with what you just said, you know, the ADA talks about signage, but it doesn’t really focus on wayfinding. And I think wayfinding, especially in public buildings, is such an important area because people can get turned around very easily. And sometimes when you visit a new building that you’ve never been to before, you can really have trouble orienting yourself to where you are and where you’re going. 

[00:21:53] And especially people who are older or people who have mobility impairments, you don’t want to have to walk around trying to find your destination and realize you’re in the wrong direction and then have to turn around and backtrack to find where you are. And there’s nothing worse than being lost and not being able to find your way or your destination.

[00:22:13] So one of the things that we wanted to do was make wayfinding really, really, a good thing. We wanted to make it easy. We wanted to make it where, regardless of the language that you spoke or your cognitive abilities, or, if someone had a visual impairment, we wanted to be able to make it comfortable and easy for everyone.

[00:22:34] So one of the things that we did is we wanted to make sure that the primary routes and the hotel floors and rooms are all delineated using variations in flooring, in color, in different themed artwork and some other architectural features. And what I mean by that is we used different color carpeting for primary paths of travel.

[00:22:59] And then wherever there is a room, a guest room, there is a different color carpet in front of the door. So, you know, you’re getting to a door of a guest room, whereas rooms that are for maintenance staff or the cleaners, those are not delineated because those are rooms that will not be used by guests.

[00:23:21] Rebecca: That’s really creative. I love that idea. 

[00:23:24] Danise: Yeah. 

[00:23:25] Rebecca: I mean, we always talk about using contrast to indicate transitions between spaces, but I had never thought about that to signal, an actual one area that you’re meant to enter versus another area that you’re not. That’s really creative.

[00:23:39] Danise: Yeah. And another thing that we did, which I think I would love in hotels that I stay at is, a lot of times you push the button on the elevator to go up to your floor, the doors open and you get out.

[00:23:50] And sometimes it’s not your floor and sometimes you don’t remember if there are a few people pushing the elevator buttons and the doors open, you’re not sure if it’s your turn to get out. What we did is, when the elevator doors open at every floor, every floor is themed with a different local theme.

[00:24:09] So, the doors may open and you see a picture of the Buffalo Bills stadium, for instance. And you know that I’m on the Buffalo Bills floor stadium, you know? So before you get out of the elevator, you can see that that may or may not be your floor. And then at every room, the room numbers on every door are in a little frame and every single room has a photograph of something local.

[00:24:34] So it could be something that’s downtown. It could be a bridge, it could be a building, it could be City Hall. It could be something from the local area. So, if you don’t remember what room you’re in, you may not remember the room number, but you will probably remember that you’re in the city hall room where, you know,  on the left side of your door, where the number of the room number is, you will see a picture of City Hall, a small black and white photo. And people have told us that  it’s really helpful because a lot more people are visual than just remembering like a room number. So, we did that. We also made sure that we put directional signage at very key decision points.

[00:25:20] So where circulation paths or primary routes intersected, we put signage at the corner. So people knew exactly when they get to that location where there’s decision making involved, they would know which way to go. So that was all involved in our, we did sort of a comprehensive wayfinding system to make it easier for people to be able to find their destinations and to, basically orient themselves within the building. 

[00:25:49] Rebecca: I love that. 

[00:25:49] Sarah: Yeah it’s kind of like a little history lesson with where you’re staying within the hotel you can learn more about the area and know what floor you’re on but it’s also like you said for people who take information in differently for how they remember things with visual input

[00:26:06] And I think it’s really helpful in that regard. 

[00:26:09] Rebecca: I was going to say that too. I love the way that you have offered people multiple options and flexibility in how they interact with the environment. And, you know, that’s one of the original tenants of universal design is that flexibility in use.

[00:26:23] So I think that that’s really cool. If you can’t remember the number, there’s a picture and things like that. That’s really interesting. And I imagine it’s the kind of thing that people might notice. Like you’ve said that it just works, but it doesn’t make them feel like they’re living in a place or staying in a space that’s strange.

[00:26:43] Danise: Yeah, exactly. And I wanted to follow up on what you were saying, about, you know, providing variety within the building. One of the things where variety is really prominent is the variety of sleeping room types. So typically in a hotel, like, like a regular Hampton Inn, you would have their standard room and then you would have their accessible room.

[00:27:06] And we like to think we have three different types of rooms in this building. So we have accessible rooms. Then we have what they’re calling “standard”, but they’re our universal design rooms. And then we have what we like to call it “standard plus”. And the reason we’ve sort of labeled it informally as having three different rooms, is that we have the accessible rooms that we’re required to have, although we have more than we need. But then we made all of the rooms universally designed. And when I say all of them, they’re all universally designed, but to different levels. So we were limited by how much space we had on the site because of the shape of the site. And based on Hilton’s requirements, we had to have a certain number of guest rooms, a minimum number of guest rooms. But some of the universal design rooms we made bigger because we wanted them to have more clearances within the room and more clearances within the restrooms. So what we did was we took some features and we incorporated them into every single room in the entire hotel.

[00:28:12] And then there are features that we incorporated beyond that into the universal design rooms. So the standard room is not like the standard room that you will see in other Hampton Inns. They are “standard plus” because they’re standard in the square footage of the room. But then we incorporated additional features such as stepless showers.

[00:28:37] We put in some grab bars. We put in knee clearance under the sink in every single bathroom in the hotel. We installed hooks mounted at differing heights. So regardless of whether you’re tall or you’re short or you’re using a wheelchair or you’re standing, you would have hooks that you can reach. All the rooms have lowered thermostats, so everybody could reach the thermostats.

[00:29:02] And other features like that. Then we went beyond that to do full universally designed rooms where the bathrooms have more turning radiuses. There’s combinations of roll-in showers and tubs. There is knee clearance like I said. There’s more space beside the beds. There’s a lot more room within the room to make your turns, to maneuver throughout the whole room.

[00:29:27] There is lowered bars in the closet, so you can hang your clothes and not have to reach. So we’ve done a lot of things within the rooms to make them more usable to everybody. And when you go into one of the universally designed rooms, they’re very well designed and to give you an example, I’m going to stay at that hotel for one night and I’ve requested a universal design room because I think that it’s just more comfortable and more spacious. And I do not have a disability nor does my family. 

[00:29:59] Rebecca: Yeah, I want to stay there! It sounds great to me. 

[00:30:02] Danise: Yeah. Yeah. 

[00:30:03] It just makes sense. And just to give you a little, maybe I’m getting too personal here, but my son is turning 10 and for his birthday, his birthday wish was to spend the night in the hotel that Mommy helped design.

[00:30:17] And he loves the hotel because he thinks that with all the additional features, not only does it benefit people with disabilities, but he’s excited to stay there because he thinks that it looks nicer and it’s just more comfortable and that’s coming from a nine year old child. So…

[00:30:37] Rebecca: That warms my heart.

[00:30:39] Danise: Yeah, that’s what he asked for, for his birthday to be able to spend his birthday night thing at the hotel. So that’s what we’re doing. 

[00:30:45] Rebecca: That’s wonderful. And that makes me think about how your work really can influence the next generation, like to be able to experience spaces like this and see that they just work, regardless of your ability, age, et cetera.

[00:31:00] That is, I think how universal design can begin to spread and it loops back to what you said at the beginning of our conversation about, first of all, you guys always including graduate students and kind of training that next generation to have this eye for universal design. And also, I think it really touches on the fact that when you experienced universal design, that’s when you really understand it and you understand its value.

[00:31:29] Don’t you think, Sarah? 

[00:31:30] Sarah: Yeah. And I just love, like what Rebecca said, you are training new professionals and you’re trying to get people interested in universal design early in their careers so they can implement it into their practice. As they continue as professionals. So, yeah, that’s awesome.  

[00:31:48] I think that reminds me. I also wanted to ask you about some of the terminology you use at the IDEA Center. It’s so easy for consumers and stakeholders to latch onto all these different terms out there, like aging in place, accessible design, plus universal and inclusive design. So how do you all explain the value of universal design to people so they can really understand how beneficial it is to everyone ? 

[00:32:14] Danise: We use universal design or inclusive design and we do talk about universal, but universal sometimes means one size fits all. Like it fits everybody. And we know that that’s not the case. 

[00:32:30] Universal design is just creating more usability for everybody. And what we want to do is we want to help people understand what the term universal design is. So we explain to them in sort of like a one sentence response of what it means and based on the audience that we’re talking to, relate it to what they’re doing or they’re building or they’re designing or how it relates to their life or their project. I think it makes more sense. As we talked about a demonstration project, where you tell people about universal design, but it’s never as effective as having people experience it.

[00:33:08] If you can take the concept, tell them what it is,  but have it relate to what they’re doing or their life, I think it makes more sense and people get more personal about it and they realize, wait a minute, I didn’t think at first, that this would relate to me because I’m able-bodied and I can do everything I want to do and I can walk and I can, you know. But then you realize that it has its place for every single person, whether you’re able-bodied or not. Whether you speak the language, or you don’t. Whether  you have a vision impairment or you don’t. You’re young, or you’re old. Regardless of that, you can see that it would apply to every single person’s life in some way or another.

[00:33:46]Sarah: I think that’s great because even your son is realizing that that makes a lot of sense and an embracing universal design and people really do have to experience it to understand it. And I think that’s the key because people don’t know what they don’t know. And once they’re able to experience it on their own, they can really see that it would make a big difference to them and their lives and the other people in their lives that may experience some sort of impairment.  

[00:34:14] Danise: Exactly. I mean, you can never walk in someone else’s shoes and know exactly what they’re feeling, right? I mean, if someone is seven feet tall and every time they go through a door, they have to duck. Someone can tell you that, but until you’re experiencing that, you’ll never be able to walk in their shoes and it’s the same thing with a person who has a disability or who has a cognitive impairment or someone who can’t do all the things that you do or can do the things that you can’t do.

[00:34:39] You can never really understand what someone else is going through. So the goal for us is to just create environments and products that we think will accommodate the widest range of people. And hope that we can accommodate as many people as possible.

[00:34:58] Rebecca: That’s such a good point about accommodating as many people as possible. And so on that note, I’m thinking about how different it is to implement universal design strategies in new construction versus existing buildings. Because if we really do want to accommodate the widest range of people, then in some cases, it’s going to be necessary to implement universal design into existing structures. 

[00:35:22] And I think a lot of times this gets a bad rap because people think it’s really expensive, or that it’s not possible, especially in old buildings. Where do you weigh in on this Danise?  

[00:35:34] Danise: Well obviously it’s always easier to implement UD strategies in new construction, but it’s not impossible to do in an existing building. And I think a lot of time architects and building owners get discouraged at the idea of incorporating universal design in older, existing buildings. And that may be because they think it’s going to cost more or it’s going to create additional challenges trying to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. 

[00:36:00] This might not be the case with some projects, but not every building will be easy, especially if it’s an older building or, you know, one that has a complex design. But it could be done. And I’ll use the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh project, which is probably one of my favorite all-time projects that I’ve ever been a part of as an example.

[00:36:21] Just to give you a quick background on the project, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh has a facility in downtown Pittsburgh and they took ownership of an adjacent building, which was formerly the Carnegie Free Library, built in 1890. So it was a historic building and it was in operation as a library until 2006, when their clock tower was struck by lightning and the building was really severely damaged. 

[00:36:46] The library moved to a new location within the city and that building sat vacant and abandoned for about 11 years until 2017 when the city provided ownership of that building to the museum. And when I made my first visit, the building was in absolutely  terrible shape. 

[00:37:06] The concrete walls were cracking. The tile floors were crumbling. And the building was just in shambles and basically the building was just eroding. But they had a vision that they wanted to incorporate universal design and they got me involved to help them with that. So, at first I was a little skeptical because I wasn’t sure that we’d be able to pull this off because the building was in really bad shape, but underneath it all, I can really see that there was a lot of potential there.

[00:37:33] And instead of being discouraged, the entire team fully embraced all the special characters of the building. And instead of feeling discouraged, we all viewed it as an opportunity to preserve the historic integrity and incorporate some modern building concepts to reflect the current user needs of our population.

[00:37:54] So one of that modern concepts that we were excited about was universal design and then ultimately giving them isUD certification. 

[00:38:02] Rebecca: That’s really cool. I live just outside of Philadelphia and I look at a lot of the old buildings and I think, oh man, it would never work, there are so many things, it would be hard to implement. But it sounds like you really made that possible, which is inspiring to think about, because there are so many buildings that we do want to preserve, but we also want to make sure that everybody can access them and benefit from them as well.

[00:38:28] Danise: Yeah. And instead of just gutting the building and starting over with sort of like a shell, many of the original features remained. And much of the cosmetic deterioration that wasn’t related to  structure was all left intact. So it sort of provides a neat visual timeline of the building and creates this stark contrast of the modifications — it’s a perfect balance of old and new. 

[00:38:53] So, instead of starting over, we almost are celebrating the history of the building. By leaving what sort of was in the past and creating a new history with all of the innovative features that we incorporated into the museum. So I just wanted to point that out because there is this sort of misnomer that you can’t do it in an older historic building because you’re limited. But you really can, if you have the knowledge to do it and you have the want and the drive to do it.

[00:39:26] Sarah: Right. And I’m sure there’s a lot of problem solving that goes into that just to analyze the space to determine if it is possible to put in universal design into an existing space. So, not impossible, but probably a little more challenging. Plus, you probably have to be pretty creative to make some of that happen. And I think you’re right and preserving some of that historic value for people to experience today in a more universal and accessible way. And I think that’s really great.  

[00:39:55] Danise: Yeah. And who is this museum serving? It’s serving mostly the next generation and our children and our children’s children. And so, it’s sort of passing the torch along to them.

[00:40:04] Sarah: Exactly. And I would love to share information about this museum. Because we do show notes at the beginning of our podcast for our listeners so we can definitely add links to the things we talked about today and about this children’s museum as well because I know that we have a children’s museum here in our area and we love to go to it and I know people will come in from out of town to visit there with their family. And so I think it would be a great experience for other families across the country to come experience play in a space that is universally designed for kids, adults, for everyone. 

[00:40:44] Danise: Great.

[00:40:44]Rebecca: So one thing I think we could definitely learn from you, Danise, is how do you see some of the ideas you’ve implemented into the hotel and the museum that are universal design ideas, transferring into home environments? Since that’s really what we work on here at the Universal Design Project and you have a lot of expertise in that area too obviously .

[00:41:06] Danise: That’s a good question. When we talk about residential projects, when we’re doing modifications in homes, we typically call them home modifications. And most of the time when people are doing home modifications, they’re doing it because there’s a particular need. Whether the person has a disability or a person is getting older, home modifications are typically considered customized adaptations that meet the specific needs of an individual or reduce some sort of caregiver burden.

[00:41:36] And they’re typically done when someone’s needs are not being met by their environment. And unfortunately that’s when people do the modifications, when they need them. But then you have the other part of the population that does modifications to sort of age in place, or anticipate, or make their living environment more comfortable and user-friendly. And I think that’s why you see a lot of patio homes and ranches being built. Because I think our generation and the generation before us and the baby boomers, I think that they’re seeing the value of just having more convenience and comfort within their homes. That’s why we’re seeing laundry rooms on the first floor.

[00:42:21] So people don’t have to climb stairs. And that’s why we’re seeing no step entries into homes because when you’re carrying groceries into a home or you’re moving furniture, going up and down stairs is difficult. And I don’t know anybody that doesn’t have a flat screen, large TV these days. And to get those through doorways is sometimes difficult. And large couches and other types of furniture.

[00:42:48] So I think there are a lot of things that people can do. And you don’t have to do them all at the same time. You can really do modifications or interventions into residential projects to make things more usable, such as if someone is having problems opening doors, you can change the knobs to lever handles. It’s just a smart, sort of more usable feature to have in your home. 

[00:43:26] People are doing more wide open rooms and spaces. So instead of having individual rooms, they’re sort of blending like the kitchen and the living room into one so that people can move more comfortably throughout the house and not get stuck at dead ends or down hallways. Doorways are being wider. When I built my house, I put 36 inch wide doors throughout my whole house, just because it’s more comfortable and more user-friendly. 

[00:43:55] In the kitchen, people are installing things that are more comfortable and usable, such as smooth top cooking surfaces and different height counts so that when they’re doing different tasks in the kitchen, they have a comfortable work surface, whether you’re doing something in a seated position or in a standing position. When you’re rolling dough, or doing something in a standing position, that’s going to be very different than when you’re seated, doing other tasks.

[00:44:26] So it’s really great to have different height countertops. People are installing cabinets that have storage that pulls out to them. Instead of reaching down into a cabinet, you can certainly have storage come to you. And along with that comes floor to ceiling height cabinets, where the things that you use the most could be within comfortable reach for you and the things that you may not use the most, maybe get stored higher or, you know, a little out of the way so that the things that you’re interacting with on a day-to-day basis are within reach. As you know, many refrigerators now come with water and ice on the outside of the fridge and that’s really for convenience. So you don’t have to reach into a refrigerator. A lot of them provide lighting, like an auxiliary light. So when people wake up in the middle of the night and go into the kitchen, they don’t have to turn all the lights on. And there’s some sort of guidance, or some sort of light that they have, even if it’s a dim light so that they could maneuver around the kitchen and get what they need without turning the light on. I mean there are a lot of really innovative products that have come out. 

[00:45:36] Rebecca: Yeah, and I love all of the things that you’re mentioning and they’re things that we’ve had conversations about really recently, and looking at a kitchen that we’ve been working on with one of our architects. I actually also saw a Buzzfeed article, I think it was yesterday, about quote, “great tools and features to have in your kitchen.” And so many of them could be classified as universal design that I chuckled at seeing it on such a mainstream platform. And it made me so happy and excited that it is being touted as something that’s valuable on a platform like that.

[00:46:14 ]Danise: Mhmm.

[00:46:15] Sarah: I love seeing articles like that too, Rebecca. And I think that the more  designs we can get out into the community, the more people will just see UD as good design versus something specialty. And I think the work you’re doing at the IDEA Center is definitely helping to make that happen. So people can really experience all the benefits of a space that’s a really good fit for all people.

[00:46:38] Rebecca: And I actually think that’s a great place to wrap up for today. Thinking about the future of universal design, and maybe someday, some of these types of things will just be commonplace and cool features that all people can benefit from! So thank you so much Danise for joining us today, we learned a ton from you and we can’t wait to see what you’re up to next!

[00:47:00] Danise: Thank you so much for having me. 

[00:47:02] Sarah: Thanks for listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. I’m your host Sarah Pruett, Program Director and Occupational Therapist at The Universal Design Project. Learn more about our work at universaldesign.org, and find more episodes and links to subscribe at goodfitpoorfit.com. If you have questions or topics you’d like to discuss, email us at [email protected].

[00:47:33] Thanks for fitting us into your day!


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