Ensuring your property is easily accessible isn’t just an issue if you are a wheelchair user – it’s a smart measure if you want to live in a home that’s future proof, whatever challenges life throws at you.
There are in the region of 13,000 persons with disabilities in Guernsey, plus around 2,000 carers providing them with support. A common misconception is that all people with disabilities use a wheelchair, when in fact there are many physical or mental conditions which may impact upon an individual’s ability to enjoy life to the full. These include visual and hearing impairment, autism, Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Intelligent building design isn’t just aesthetically pleasing; it is thoughtful, practical and aims to make every property accessible to everyone.
By understanding the needs of persons with disabilities we can create buildings that are inclusive and can be enjoyed by us all. Create Chartered Architects are involved in the ‘Think Differently About Disability’ campaign and have assisted in the production of a Building Access change card which provides key hints and tips to make buildings more accessible. The practice has also worked on a number of specialist housing projects for persons with reduced mobility. To ensure continued professional development in this field, two members of the team have undertaken accessibility training organised by Access For All and run by the Centre for Accessible Environments (CAE).
There is more to designing an inclusive building than placing a ramp at the entrance; accessibility should be considered from the moment you arrive by car, bus or bike and, once inside, holistically throughout. An accessible building involves the careful design of lighting, colour, acoustics, layout and finishes, and even the design of notices and signage for visitors. WC design is an important consideration too; it’s more complex than you might expect so a specialist should be consulted. Furthermore, a well-designed public building should take into account parents and carers with prams and pushchairs as well as wheelchair users. ‘You’d be amazed by the number of new buildings that aren’t designed with level access,’ says Ricky Mahy, Create’s Technical Director. ‘Or which have gravel outside – wheelchairs and buggies can’t move on gravel.’
Some of the shops in St Peter Port are particularly challenging, due to their historic features. Although at present there is no legislation in Guernsey that means you have to adapt an existing building to be inclusive, if you run a business or public service, why wouldn’t you want to encourage everyone to visit you? As Design Director James Barker explains: ‘Sometimes it’s not about adapting the building, it’s about making a reasonable adjustment to find a way to make it more accessible, for instance a removable timber ramp or a call button at street level to ask for help. These buildings can be a problem but we can find ways to overcome the issues.’
Inclusivity doesn’t just apply to public buildings; our homes should be accessible too; after all, any of us could suffer an injury which makes mobility difficult, even if only temporarily. Our needs often change as we age and, as house prices rise and life expectancy increases, multi-generational living has become more commonplace. Level access is desirable whether you have a disability or not: the absence of different levels or raised thresholds improves flow between rooms and looks great. Similarly, generously proportioned doorways and bathrooms create a luxurious feel as well as increasing accessibility. Whether your property is being built from scratch or renovated, it makes sense to speak to a chartered architect with a desire to go above and beyond the minimum building regulations. Ricky says, ‘As a general rule what we’ve found is that the building regulations go some way to making buildings more accessible but a lot more needs to be done to make them fully accommodating. What’s the point in having a building that complies with the regulations but isn’t fit for purpose?’
The team at Create can advise you if your existing property has been built on a gradient or if your site presents other challenges. For example, if a ramp isn’t a possibility on a sloping site, you might look at vertical circulation in the form of a lift. New products coming onto the market successfully avoid a ‘clinical’ look, and do bear in mind that future-proofing your home doesn’t mean that you should install grab rails or ceiling hoists if you don’t need them: having the potential for such measures will give you peace of mind and increase the prospective market for your property should you choose to sell it.
‘There is a lifetime homes principle that we work to,’ explains James. ‘Within reason, houses can usually be adapted to cater for people with disabilities to extend the life of the building.’ Whether Create are working on a commercial or domestic project, the level of attention to design goes from the macro to the micro. For example, choosing a sans serif font for signage increases legibility, handrails are more pleasant to use if they are not cold to the touch and the choice of door handles can make a difference if you have dexterity issues. Even the position of power sockets and light switches makes a difference to day-to-day life.
Above all, the team at Create want to remove any negative connotations regarding accessibility and normalise the concept, whilst showing that inclusive design can still be beautiful and stylish. ‘Let’s take away barriers and make buildings better for everyone,’ concludes Ricky.