Did you always dream of being an access consultant?
No, I started my professional life in California designing commercial interiors (restaurants, hotels and casinos) at a time when the state was introducing 'barrier-free' building codes. That’s how my involvement with accessible design started. I had a period when I left design completely, to work in marketing before I returned to join the Centre for Accessible Environments, then Buro Happold as an access consultant.
I’m a very detail oriented person and adore solving puzzles, working out how to fit things together and how they can be improved, but my love of design means that I also want those solutions to be elegant. In my work, I want to provide the best possible access for people, without compromising great design. I hate the notion that when you approach a building the first thing you read is ‘disabled access ramp’ rather than simply ‘entrance’. Without an integrated approach to design, access features in themselves can ‘disable’ design – and it’s no small wonder that design professionals don’t always hold us in high regard.
Access consultants are often viewed as people working to checklists, but at Buro Happold we try to be much more flexible and creative. Our starting point is the desire to give everyone who will use a building or facility the same quality of experience. We enable our clients to understand what their minimum legal responsibility is and then develop a dialogue with them, so we can move past the basics to great designs which will enhance facilities for the benefit of all users, not just disabled people. There aren’t that many access consultants in the UK and I believe there are even fewer who work like us.
For example, when the Olympic Velodrome was designed, its main entrance was set to stand more than 3m above ground level. Because of the contaminated site it was virtually impossible to dig down, so the architects were going to have to install external lifts and create enormous switch-back ramps which would have seriously detracted from the stunning curved design. We worked through the plans and realised that there was enough space around the site and building to create a landscaped plaza which would move gently up towards the entrance, reducing that height to a much more manageable 2m which wouldn’t require the use of external lifts or switch-back ramps. There are still slopes leading up to the external concourse, but they follow the building line and the visual impact has been massively reduced.
Just how much does it cost to make a building accessible?
There isn’t a rule of thumb you can apply to the cost of accessibility. To add a new lift to a pre-existing building could be extremely costly, but to opt for a larger than minimum sized lift in a new build which needs a lift anyway, will have a negligible cost.
We often work on large scale developments, but have also supported many underfunded organisations, helping them find cost-effective ways of meeting their responsibilities. Often the advice we provide on service provision is more important than anything we specify in terms of alterations. We will always suggest ways that they can solve their problems at no cost, or low cost, if options exist. For example, moving the function of an office that needs to be accessible to a different location in a building could avoid the need to install costly lifts and ramps. In an existing building the legislation is primarily concerned with the provision of service and how that’s made accessible, rather than the physical features of the building.
We have a deep understanding of both the legal requirements and the spirit of the law, which means that we can support clients in negotiations with planners and regulators. On one City of London project there was an issue with the distance between wheelchair accessible toilets. The provisions of the building regulation says that they should be no more than 40m apart, but in a few areas of the building they were going to be 55-60m apart. The cost of adding the extra facilities was estimated at half a million pounds, but we knew that the guidance had been written to take into account buildings full of potential obstructions, while this building would be open plan, allowing all users, including wheelchairs users, easy movement around the space. We were able to prove to the planners and building control that, in this case, the extra few metres would have virtually no impact on disabled staff and visitors and so secured permission to go ahead with the larger spacing, saving the client a significant amount of money in the process.
So, is it all about buildings?
Not at all. One of the most unusual projects I’ve been involved in is Up At The O2, the new visitor attraction which allows people to climb over the roof of the O2 Arena in Greenwich. We’ve been involved in that project since its very beginning and the design has developed from something that could have been quite passive, to a finished design, which is the closest thing that people could possibly get to actually walking on the roof. It’s being advertised under the headline ‘Climb An Icon’ and that’s the aim, to get people actively hauling themselves up the sloping sides of the O2 enjoying uninterrupted views as they go and a real sense of achievement when they finish, rather than sitting or standing while they are ‘carried’ over. If you imagine the difference between leaping off a cliff on the end of a bungee cord and the same descent in a lift – we wanted people to feel like they’d gone with the bungee!
We’re now working with the AEG to complete the methodologies for wheelchair users to do the climb. Again our focus is on creating a fully interactive challenge, not a lift or a pod. We want wheelchairs users to control their own progress wherever they can and to have the support they need on more difficult stretches (some sections of the climb are three times steeper than any section of the Tour de France)! As part of the development process, I became the first person to traverse the O2 in a wheelchair which was fantastic – exhausting, but well worth the effort! A wheelchair user will need three or four trained guides to help them on the climb, but the aim is to ensure that wheelchair users will still climb with friends and family, so they can have the same shared experience that anyone else who climbs the O2 enjoys.
Do you think that people are more clued up about accessibility today?
There has definitely been a major shift in understanding since the Disability Discrimination Act (now replaced by the Equality Act) was originally introduced, but many design professionals still only have a basic understanding of the law and the options for meeting their obligations. Some architects that we’ve worked with over the course of several projects definitely get it now; you see their initial designs getting closer and closer to best practice with each project, but they still need the detailed input that specialists can offer.
Our expertise makes us spot things that other people wouldn’t. For example, we recently worked on the University of Exeter Forum Project. While looking at the proposed designs for the high level art work commissioned for the glazing I wondered if there was any risk of triggering pattern sensitive epilepsy due to the ‘op-art’ patterning and the movement of sunlight and clouds. This is a relatively rare condition where epileptic seizures can be caused by exposure to brightly lit, regularly spaced, strongly contrasted patterns; things like flashing lights, grills, the metal stair treads on escalators and other striped or checked patterns. I sent copies of the designs to a contact at Cambridge University and after analysis he was able to confirm that in one small area, the combination of the movement of light and the patterns might have the potential to create the same frequencies that prompt seizures. Once the artist understood the issues, they were able to alter the patterning and removed the risk.
In a very simplified way, I’d say there are two complementary groups of people working in design and construction today - people who focus on the structures, what they look like, how they’ll occupy the space and what goes where, and people who focus on user experience. Access consultants and specialists such as acousticians, fire engineers and crowd flow specialists fall into the second group: we start from how people actually use space, how they move around and the sensory experiences they will have when they use those spaces, then design from there.
Shouldn’t every building be fully accessible now?
Ideally, yes. Every building should be accessible – but choice is critical, balancing sustainability and a ‘wellness’ agenda with the rights of easy access is actually very tricky.
We know that the populations of most developed countries are ageing, with more people over 65 than under 16, but those older people are generally much fitter and healthier than in previous generations. If we replaced every staircase with a lift, we’d make every space step free, but we’d also reduce the amount of exercise people were getting as they went about their daily business. We need spaces to be adaptable enough to meet people’s additional needs as and when they exist, but at the same time to support healthy, sustainable lifestyles.
It’s this balancing act that makes my work so fascinating – it’s definitely not just about designing toilets!