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What Is Inclusive Architecture?

Our world is filled with architecture. Schools, hospitals, houses, corporate buildings, and museums are all designed by architects. To the untrained eye, a building seems like a simple concept, but architects must turn the abstract into physical reality. There are numerous considerations, both practical and aesthetic. Architecture involves artistic skills just as much as engineering ones. Inclusiveness is one of the considerations. Are there barriers that prevent certain groups from feeling comfortable? Or can everyone enter a space and be welcome?

Universal design: eliminating barriers and establishing accessibility

Coined by the architect Ronald Mace, “universal design” applies to buildings, products, and environments. While it isn’t exclusive to architecture, it drives the goals and standards of inclusive architecture, so all architects are familiar with the term. In universal design, architects strive to create spaces that are accessible to everyone. Factors like age, ability, gender, and culture all play a role. In the past, not much consideration was given to design beyond what able-bodied, neurotypical people needed. As modern medicine improved, the survival rate of people with congenital disorders, major injuries, and illness rose. Life expectancies went up, too, which meant that more older adults with specific mobility concerns were present in the world. Spaces needed to be designed with them in mind.

In 2012, the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access – which is located at the University of Buffalo – released eight goals of universal design. They are:

  • Comfort – Are demands (like reaching for a railing) within “desirable limits of body function and perception?”
  • Body fit – Does the design accommodate a range of body abilities and sizes?
  • Wellness – Does the design promote health and protect from germs and hazards?
  • Social integration – Are all groups treated with respect and dignity?
  • Understanding – For things that need to be operated, are their uses clear?
  • Personalization – Are there opportunities for personal choice and preferences?
  • Cultural appropriateness – Is the design respectful of cultural values?
  • Awareness – Is critical information (like signs) easy to see?

How to identify where exclusion exists

When designing an inclusive pace, an architect first needs to learn where barriers are and who they affect. Reaching out to the community is a great start. Using surveys or meetings, collect information on what people want in the building. They may have opinions on specific spaces – like the bathroom or hallways – or more general thoughts on inclusiveness.

When approaching these discussions, always use respectful language and be open to feedback. Everyone has biases and privileges, so being self-aware and doing the work to learn is important. An architect may have personal experience with certain barriers, but there are always some they may not have considered before. Meeting the minimum standards most likely won’t be enough to give everyone an equally positive experience. The minimum is where an architect should start, not where they should end. Talking to the community and conducting more research helps take universal design above and beyond.

Examples of inclusive architecture

Every building that serves the public should be inclusive. Instead of providing a long list of every public building, let’s describe what inclusive design looks like for two specific buildings: hospitals/clinics and schools.

Hospitals and clinics

These buildings need to encourage a sense of well-being. Many people feel anxious when they go to the hospital or doctor, so architects must consider how to make the community feel more at ease. There’s also a wide range of people coming and going, so architects must consider body size, abilities, and more. Some important design features include wide paths and hallways, so it’s easy for everyone to move by walking or using a wheelchair, crutches, or other mobility equipment. Ramps are also important. Smaller slopes make it easier to push heavy gurneys or wheelchairs. Floors should be non-slip and shock-absorbent to reduce the chances of someone falling. In the bathroom, special consideration should be made to toilet seats, mirrors, and sinks.


Kids and teenagers spend a lot of their time in school. The school’s architecture needs to encourage learning and help everyone thrive. It should be easy to get around the building and locate classrooms and bathrooms. Like in hospitals, hallways should accommodate students who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices. For kids who are visual learners and have trouble focusing during a lecture, aids like electronic blackboards or TV screens are very useful. Charging stations in desks are also good for schools that use laptops. School bathrooms are a big talking point in design these days. According to research from GLSEN, an American education organization, ⅔ of trans students avoid school bathrooms because they feel uncomfortable and unsafe. All-gender bathrooms help alleviate this issue in schools and other public buildings.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.

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