Is Universal Design Green?

Universal Design

We are very pleased to have our inaugural guest post by John Salmen, AIA.  A licensed architect, John is President of Universal Designers and Consultants, Inc.. John has specialized in barrier free and universal design for 30 years and is a recognized expert on US accessibility regulations and a leader in the field of Universal Design.   We can think of no one better to start the accessibility discussion on our blog, and we also believe John makes an interesting, persuasive and important connection between economic, environmental and social sustainability that merits significant attention.

Inevitably, this question must be raised. As public awareness of green design swells to a tidal wave, many Students of Universal Design (UD) think we see the next wave approaching – and its name is Universal Design. But how do these waves relate to each other? Are they random swells? Or caused by undersea movement of the earth’s crust?

Valerie Fletcher, Executive Director of the Institute for Human Centered Design, and Elaine Ostroff, Founding Director along with Eric Mikiten, AIA of the Bay Area COTE, believe that they are both connected to the earth shaking movement of Sustainability. Eric presented his overview in detail at the AIA 2009 convention. The trefoil logo, developed by the Department of Public Works of Queensland, Australia for its Smart House program (, communicated how these three universal design leaders visualize the “ three–legged stool of sustainable design.” The graphic above illustrates how universal design is a basic element of sustainable design, as it relates to resource efficiency and economic empowerment under the umbrella of environmental, economic and social sustainability.
Environmental sustainability relates to the green movement and natural resource conservation and efficiency. Economic sustainability relates to concepts of life cycle costing, equity and fair trade value of products and services. Social sustainability relates to systems that support people by creating safe, secure and independent communities.

When compared to financial and natural resources, human ability is arguably the most precious resource of all. Human ability is enabled, supported and encouraged by a universally designed environment that gives everyone the opportunity to participate with a minimum of outside support. Just as we must conserve our natural resources, we must also conserve our human resources. It is a waste of human potential to create environments that demand dependence when a simple change in the design of the path, space or element could allow un-assisted use. Like “green design”, universal design must be an integral part of design programming and the imaginative design process. It cannot be left as an add-on in a minimal compliance mode.

The relationship between two people who are locked in the care giver/receiver dance, while frequently a loving and enriching experience, is difficult, uncomfortable, and too often destructive of human dignity. Independence is best and can be extended with universal design. The obvious example is aging in place, which is facilitated by universally designed homes and communities.

As we struggle to make the most of limited resources, the value of universal design as a tool to conserve human resources will become increasingly apparent, and its relationship to the broader goal of sustainability will become clear.

Editor's post script: In response to Chris Cheatham's fair question of what is "Universal Design", here is a definition from John Salmen's website:

Ron Mace, one of the original universal design movement leaders, defined universal design as: "Universal Design is the design of products and environments to be useable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

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Comments (10) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Chris Cheatham - December 17, 2009 9:17 AM

From reading this, I must admit, I have never heard of Universal Design. Is there a good definition and example of it?

The green building wave has most definitely come in, but I am waiting for the green building legal wave, which is about to break.

Rent To Own Homes - December 17, 2009 11:06 AM

This is an informative post, i have just heard that universal design may be green by reading this post...
Thanks for the post..

Timothy R. Hughes - December 17, 2009 11:09 AM

Hi Chris - generally speaking, I would say Universal Design is conceptually based around designing and building structures that are barrier free and usable by the entire population. The concept goes beyond minimal compliance with ADA, FHA and other regulatory minimum requirements and towards universal accessibility.

That being said, John Salmen could probably give you a much better, more complete and more eloquent definition!

Thanks for stopping, and still waiting on the green wave here too!!

Timothy R. Hughes - December 17, 2009 4:25 PM

Rent - thanks for visiting and commenting!

Imad Naffa, P.E. - December 17, 2009 11:03 PM

Great Post- Thank you John for the information and Timothy for posting!

I must admit, until recently, I did not see a direct relationship between Universal Design and Sustainability or Green. I thought of them as distinct and separate topics.

By the way, I like the triangle graphics to illustrate the relationship between Universal Design and Sustainability.

Accessibility, for the most part, is a part of the existing codes, either in the form of Federal Standards, such as ADA or State-Adopted Codes. Applicants and Designers have to deal with such regulations one way or another.

The Sustainability and Green provisions are up and coming and for the most part are still voluntary in application and not codified. There is a national movement in the country to codify such provisions, and I think eventually we will. But until such provisions are incorporated into the Building Codes, they will not have the bite that they deserve and place them on the same level of Accessibility (Universal Design).

In California, the California Building Code (CBC) has extensive Accessibility provisions that were based on Universal Design concepts.

This link from the California's State Architect Web Site provides additional information regarding Universal Design in general and its interaction with California's Accessibility provisions:

Thank you!

Timothy R. Hughes - December 18, 2009 2:26 PM

Thanks for a very informative reply. Your input is always most welcome here. I also know quite well your interest on code and accessibility related issues, so I believe you and John would have a lot to talk about,

Office space in Orange County - December 20, 2009 6:31 AM

Thanks for this awesome information on universal design.
Keep it up. I need to know more from your blog.

Thanks Once again

Tim Hughes - December 20, 2009 10:49 AM

Mike/office space:
Thanks for your comment, please come back!

John Salmen - December 22, 2009 9:13 AM

In response to questions about what is Universal Design, we have published another definition of UD on our website that reinforces two important aspects of UD - that it is a process, and that it involves giving people "choice". It might be better termed: Universal Designing - to reinforce that it is a process not a product.

We at UD&C define UD as: The process of imbedding choice for all people in the things we design.

choice involves flexibility, and multiple alternative means of use and/or interface

people includes the full range of people regardless of age, ability, sex, economic status, etc.

things include spaces, products, information systems and any other things that humans manipulate or create

Tim Hughes - December 22, 2009 9:20 AM

Thanks again for your wonderful contribution, and for your follow-up thoughts. The ability for all people to utilize and enjoy our built environment is an very important societal value, and that value is only going to become more and more self-evident as our nation faces the challenges of a dramatically aging population over the next 20-30 years.

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