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Universal design

Sabrina Hoeck


Architect AIBC (Canada)

Sabrina has extensive experience of public projects, from sports and recreation to public transit. She is a strong collaborator and has studied and worked in Germany, Switzerland and Holland as well as Canada. Sabrina is currently undertaking the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification.

Britannia Leisure Centre Faulknerbrowns Architects Universal Design Wheelchair Badminton L


Imagine you are using a wheelchair, perhaps temporarily, and you can’t access your local library. The ramp leading to the entrance is too steep for you to get up without help. After successfully reaching the entrance, you still have difficulties entering the building. A rotating door is blocking your way.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) almost everyone is likely to experience a form of temporary or permanent disability during their life. Approximately 15% of the world’s population live with a disability, a number which is rapidly rising with an aging population.

Accessible vs Universal Design

People with disabilities are often excluded from everyday public life and accessibility is a buzzword in the world of design for good reason. While accessible design focuses on the minimum requirements to meet building codes and standards, it does not necessarily ensure a space can be used by a diverse group of people. Universal design, however, aims to build places that can be used by all people, places that are easy to access, use and navigate.

Faulknerbrowns Architects Sportcampus Zuiderpark Entrance Universal Design
Multiple welcoming entrances at Sportcampus Zuiderpark ensure the building is easy to navigate

This approach is key at every stage of our design process and extends beyond new buildings to renovation projects and the design of public spaces. Our Vancouver studio is currently designing an outdoor pool that will not only exceed accessibility minimums, but be certified ‘Gold’ by the Rick Hansen Foundation, a national rating system that measures the level of meaningful access of buildings.

What does this look like in practice? A universally designed building might use contrasting colours for floors and walls to provide visual clarity and make spaces easier to navigate for people with limited vision.

Faulknerbrowns Architects Oxford University Led Court Markings Universal Design L
LED court markings provide visual clarity

Smell and sound might come into consideration to improve orientation – wooden cladding smells very different to painted drywall, while splashing fountains or flowerbeds could help people identify a place without reading signage. Tactile differences in flooring and wall materials can also assist people with visual and hearing challenges. All of these features go beyond meeting accessibility standards such as clear widths of doorways and ramp/lift access to the pools.

Equity vs Equality

Designing for equity is an important aspect of universal design. Equality means everyone is treated the same, regardless of their needs or any differences. Spaces that are designed for equity, however, provide everyone with what they need to succeed. In a design context this could simply mean providing different options – options to sit down and take a rest, or a range of different furniture heights.

Universal Change Faulknerbrowns Architects L
Universal changing areas offer different options for different levels of privacy

At Britannia Leisure Centre, the local community influenced the different options provided to create an inclusive facility. The centre’s changing areas include both shared and individual areas with inclusive signage. This setup offers privacy and choice, rather than prescribing a single solution, and was developed with local LGBTQI+ youth group Project Indigo.

Britannia Leisure Centre makes sport and movement available to the whole community

The result at Britannia Leisure Centre is that the local community feels encouraged to participate in sport. Beyond physical accessibility, community spaces need to be psychologically accessible – welcoming rather than institutional. By designing universally, a space can be enriched for everyone, whether you live with a disability or not.