I used to think Vancouver was a pretty accessible place: buses with ramps, curb cuts, and designated parking spots for people with mobility issues. In my work as an architect, I was under the impression that I was doing the right thing and meeting accessibility standards by following the building code and the handbook of accessibility.
And then my father had a stroke and ended up in a wheelchair. Watching him through his daily struggles shifted my perspective and I started to look at public spaces through a different lens. Although Vancouver is accessible compared to a lot of places in the world, many of our public spaces and buildings pose accessibility challenges, not only for people with mobility challenges, but also for many members of our community, including the elderly and parents with young children. I started to realize that there are numerous things that are not easily captured by a guideline in a handbook or building code. These details can make or break a person’s feeling of being welcome and included, or even prevent them from participating and engaging in society. Imagine being asked to enter the bank or museum through the backdoor because the front has large steps; realizing you cannot use the bathroom in the restaurant you are having lunch at because it is located in the basement; having to phone ahead with your travel plans so someone can help you get onto the Skytrain.
At HCMA Architecture + Design, we help our clients to create public buildings which are universally accessible to all. In our buildings everyone enters through the main entrance, and we strive to design them so that people can easily and intuitively find their way around. It is sometimes hard to gauge the impact that our decisions as designers have for the people that use the spaces we help create, but we believe that it is our duty to our communities and users to strive for excellence in inclusiveness. We have recently become more thorough with our post occupancy evaluations, and in addition to tracking water and energy consumption, we are seeking to measure the social impact of a building; is it truly welcoming to all, has it positively influenced social interactions among the users, does it encourage community engagement, or has it altered the way people teach and learn?
And we realized we still have a ways to go before we can claim that our buildings are truly inclusive to all. Our own new office space is on one floor, with wide circulation space and elevator access; however, our main building lobby does not have an automated door. There are other areas where we are seeking to improve. When selecting colour schemes for our projects we can be more aware of the impact our choices have on the visually impaired. We noticed that despite designing true community buildings for all ages and abilities, our promotional renderings and professional photos contained young, able bodied models almost exclusively, sending a mixed message.
If we want to explore what is truly possible for universal accessibility, we will not succeed by staying in a bubble or sticking to a handbook. This is why we are asking for your input. What are the challenges YOU face or observe in our public spaces and buildings every day? What is that ONE change that you think could have maximum impact? And what would you teach young architects that cannot be found in a handbook?
Please take 5 minutes of your time to fill out our accessibility survey and join the conversation about what’s possible. We'll share the results so that everyone can benefit from our findings.