Grand Rapids YMCA is first building to adopt universal design standards

People using the YMCA universal design ramp.

From rail to rail, there's 6 feet of clearance in the ramp, one of numerous universal design features incorporated into the new Mary Free Bed YMCA in Grand Rapids, Mich. Photo: Terry Johnston Photography

Release Date: January 5, 2016 This content is archived.

“These standards were created to provide designers and other stakeholders with a resource that can guide them to go beyond basic accessibility and be more inclusive. ”
Danise Levine, assistant director, IDeA Center
University at Buffalo
YMCA feature ramp.

The 6-foot-wide ramp is among numerous universal design features incorporated into the new Mary Free Bed YMCA in Grand Rapids, Mich. It's the first facility to adopt universal design certification standards created by the University at Buffalo's Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access and the Global Commission for Universal Design. Photo: Terry Johnston Photography

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Advances in science and medicine are making it easier for people of all ages and abilities to get around. But how do you design a new building to ensure that it serves the needs of all users? Inclusive design can make that happen.

The University at Buffalo’s Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA Center), in collaboration with the Global Universal Design Commission (GUDC), has developed the first set of universal design certification standards for commercial buildings, looking to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines as a model.

The first facility to adopt these standards and become certified — the Mary Free Bed YMCA in Grand Rapids, Michigan — opened its doors to the public Dec. 7.

The IDeA Center, which is housed in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, started developing the universal design guidelines in 2009.

“This is a major milestone for the IDeA Center and our partners in the Global Universal Design Commission, who have been working on this effort for more than five years,” said Danise Levine, architect and IDeA Center assistant director. “A lot of resources were devoted to developing the universal design standards, finding an adopter and evaluating the first building.”

The IDeA Center’s universal design standards are comprehensive, offering guidelines for the design process (who should be involved and how), site elements (parking, signage and pedestrian routes), building elements (doors, restrooms, circulation systems) and services and facility management policies.

“These standards were created to provide designers and other stakeholders with a resource that can guide them to go beyond basic accessibility and be more inclusive,” said Levine.

How exactly does universal design help? Here are a few examples:

  • Exterior circulation: The site is organized to minimize travel between parking and the building entrance without crossing into vehicular paths while exterior pedestrian routes provide continuous travel throughout the site without changes in level.
  • Building elements: Doorways, hallways and other spaces accommodate a wide range of body sizes and abilities.
  • Wayfinding: The Mary Free Bed YMCA uses color schemes, combined with different shapes and hue patterns that are easily identified by people with all types of color vision and under a variety of lighting conditions. The wayfinding system was designed to be consistently recognizable by people of all ages and cultural groups.

Levine reviewed the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids’ final drawings for the 116,000-square-foot Mary Free Bed facility and offered recommendations on changes that would improve its overall usability, including signage and wayfinding, communication elements and digital technologies — as well as exterior spaces.

“A core value of our YMCA is inclusion,” says Ronald K. Nelson, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids. “Universal design opened our eyes to another dimension of inclusion, of which we are now very proud. It was a huge asset to have an organization such as the IDeA Center that could evaluate our planning and progress, particularly since our project was well underway prior to our being aware of each other’s organization.”

Collaboration between the numerous stakeholders was key to making the Mary Free Bed project successful and, in turn, helping the Y fulfill its mission to create an inclusive facility, Levine said.

“It is extremely gratifying and exciting to see all of these efforts come to fruition. The Y, as an early adopter of the standards, should be commended for being a leader in the inclusive design movement, designing and developing an inclusive site for all of their employees and visitors. Visitors to the Y should in turn recognize and appreciate the Y’s commitment to providing a state-of-the-art facility for the entire community,” she said.

“The universal design standards will provide designers and other stakeholders with strategies that they can include in their own projects that create more usable environments. Until now, no such resource existed. Our hope is that more sites will come to incorporate the standards, not only creating more exemplars of universal design, but also providing more inclusive environments that benefit all people,” said Levine.

The IDeA Center recently began working with a Fortune 500 company to begin the process of implementing the standards for a major renovation project. A universal design certification website is also under development and will be launched by summer 2016.

The universal design standards were developed under a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (H133E100002).

Downloadable photos

Adaptable exercise equipment.

The fitness center in the new Mary Free Bed YMCA in Grand Rapids, Mich., features adaptable exercise equipment designed to be used by people of all ages and abilities. Photo: Terry Johnston Photography

exterior of Mary Free Bed YMCA.

Exterior of the new Mary Free Bed YMCA in Grand Rapids, Mich., which opened Dec. 7, 2015. Photo: Terry Johnston Photography

rock climbing wall.

The rock climbing wall at the Mary Free Bed YMCA in Grand Rapids, Mich., features vertical and horizontal climbing patterns, and uses a bright color coding system to identify climbing paths and levels of difficulty. Photo: Terry Johnston Photography

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