Research News

Universal design program aims to make socially responsible design standard practice

The main gallery of the MuseumLab in the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh features generously spaced corridors and doorways, as well as sound absorption panels. Photo: Danise Levine.


Published October 9, 2019

“It might be hard to get excited about corridors that allow two wheelchairs to pass, but consider the perspective of the wheelchair user or the caregiver pushing the wheelchair. ”
Chris Cieslak, director of facilities
Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

Universal design has long been embraced by businesses eager to create safer, healthier and more supportive facilities for their employees and visitors, regardless of age or ability. The challenge for many is how.

While the design philosophy dates back to the 1990s — when architects sought to go beyond obtrusive and alienating “handicap-accessible” design and building practices — its adoption has been hindered by a lack of detailed guidelines and gaps in training for designers and builders.

UB’s Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA Center), a world-recognized pioneer in the field, hopes to push universal design into standard practice with a new research-backed assessment and certification program that walks users through the entire process, from planning the project through building design, and including facility operation.

More than 500 illustrated design solutions and best practices developed by the IDEA Center over the course of almost four decades are packed into the program, called isUD™, or innovative solutions for Universal Design.

The program guides clients through a menu of design strategies and tracks progress toward meeting the goals of universal design through an automated scoring system, while providing design options to attain credits toward certification. Buildings that earn sufficient credits are eligible for isUD Certification in Universal Design, complete with a plaque worthy of lobby display.

“This is the first recognition program to provide a comprehensive approach to user-centered design, including attention to usability, wellness and social relations,” says Edward Steinfeld, founding director of the IDEA Center, which is based in the School of Architecture and Planning.

“isUD empowers the full range of stakeholders — from business owners and facility managers, to real estate developers, to architects and designers — to integrate socially responsible design in their buildings,” Steinfeld adds. “It also brings needed visibility to a growing movement in design that improves environments for everyone.”

Children's Museum of Pittsburgh was first test

The gaps between workstations in the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh MuseumLab are larger to better accommodate guests.

Launched after a multi-year pilot, the program has already been widely embraced. Early adopters include Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits and local government. Its current scope covers public and commercial buildings, but it will expand to include residential buildings, among others. The program was developed with funding from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research.

isUD’s first test case started in 2017 when the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh came to the IDEA Center for help on its “MuseumLab,” an ambitious expansion project that would involve the renovation and adaptive reuse of a 129-year-old historic building and create the country’s largest cultural campus for kids.

Chris Cieslak, director of facilities for the Children’s Museum, says the aspiration was to ingrain the project with the values of inclusion. “We didn’t want to do ‘green washing’ or ‘ADA washing.’ We wanted the rigor of third-party certification and a standard by which we could be evaluated,” she says, referencing the Americans with Disabilities Act, also known as ADA.

Danise Levine, an architect and assistant director of the IDEA Center, oversaw the certification process for MuseumLab, which opened in April as the first isUD-certified building.

After two years of consultation that included a regular exchange of construction drawings, design documents and product specifications, Levine says the project stands as a beacon for innovation in universal design.

“Instead of being discouraged by limitations of the existing building, the MuseumLab team viewed it as an opportunity to preserve its historic integrity and incorporate modern building concepts, including universal design,” she says.

Many of the design solutions are subtle, the ideal in universal design. Elevators and bathrooms offer 360-degree turning radiuses for large wheelchairs. Lobbies and hallways offer generous circulation paths that can accommodate family groupings and strollers. Illuminated room signs are easy for all to see, while directional signage is cleverly mounted at turns in the wall, and in colors that contrast with the brick walls.

“It might be hard to get excited about corridors that allow two wheelchairs to pass, but consider the perspective of the wheelchair user or the caregiver pushing the wheelchair,” says Cieslak.

In line with the universal design goal of social integration, all-gender restrooms offer an adult changing table and space to accommodate companions. They are also dispersed throughout the building (as opposed to being isolated in a designated area).

Cieslak says she and her team came out of the process with an entirely new awareness of and facility with the tools of universal design — so much so that they came up with solutions on their own that went above and beyond the scope of isUD.

“We noticed that the automatic toilet-flush systems and high-powered hand dryers could be distressing to visitors with autism or sensory challenges. So we got manual flush valves and quieter dryers. No one noticed, but it was deliberate,” she says.

Social responsibility and beyond

Beyond its social responsibility and aesthetic appeal, universal design is good for the bottom line. Research, including studies by the IDEA Center, has shown it increases employee productivity and morale, as well as visitor satisfaction. Its safety measures reduce liability.

Consumer products giant Procter & Gamble recently applied the standards to its overall facility inclusion polices, which cover the company’s buildings across the U.S. “The IDEA Center has changed the way my company thinks about universal design. Using the isUD standards has redefined our facility inclusion efforts,” says Greg Patterson, the company’s facilities universal design leader.

PricewaterhouseCoopers just completed the first phase of isUD for two office buildings, and in Western New York, Uniland Development Company is building the country’s first isUD-certified hotel in the Town of Amherst.

The Hampton by Hilton project is part of the Northtown Center and Audubon Recreation Complex, which has emerged as a destination for USA Sled Hockey tournaments and other sports for people with disabilities.

Uniland’s senior real estate development manager, Kellena Kane, says the 107-room hotel, set to open in 2020, builds on the site’s unique tourism potential. “We saw this as a niche of the market, an opportunity to set the Northtown Center apart as a sports and recreation destination for all,” she says.

The company’s design team has worked closely with the IDEA Center to balance isUD requirements with the limitations of the site and franchisor approval.

For instance, the hotel is constrained by the size of the site, and has little room to expand floorplates. That posed a challenge for achieving isUD clearances for bathrooms, which go beyond ADA requirements.

“That can get costly to the financials of a project if you’re eliminating too many standard-sized rooms to meet those requirements,” says Kane. “We had to be creative to maximize the site while still meeting the required dimensions.”

Other solutions combine clarity and elegance. Colored accent carpet will signal hotel room doorways, and themed art will visually delineate hotel floors.

“We want to create a building that is easy for everyone to navigate and where the changes are subtle and intuitive,” says Mary Hazlett, Uniland’s lead architectural interior designer for the project.

Now the company is blending universal design into other projects in its portfolio, Hazlett says. “We will take this knowledge and incorporate it into as many of our buildings as possible.”

The best examples of universal design solutions are subtle and integrative, like this wayfinding that doubles as art at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.

Public sector pioneer

Public buildings and spaces are a critical target for universal design. They are also among the most challenged due to aging facilities.

Erie County, however, is diving in.

The local government has written universal design right into its Live Well Erie initiative, a data-driven strategy for improving health outcomes and quality of life for all. Specifically, the strategy sets a goal to integrate universal design into county-supported senior housing facilities and public spaces.

According to Brian Bray, special assistant commissioner in the Erie County Department of Social Services, it was a given that universal design would be part of the strategy. “Anything that involves the support of taxpayer dollars has to have universal design as a guiding principle,” he says.

Now they have the tools to make it happen. “We need that step-by-step guide, a standard to refer to,” Bray says.

More information on isUD certification is available online.


I hope that UB will follow these examples in the future. At the moment, I can point out a couple of problems. For starters, there are at least three conversation areas (couches and tables) in the new medical school building that were designed to be inaccessible to wheelchair users. Amazing!

My building, the Biomedical Research Building, is not accessible to unassisted wheelchair users, although I'm told  that situation may change at some time in the future. I'm hoping that'll happen.

Susan Udin