Architects step up to Accessibility Challenge

December 01, 2017
Jamie Hewitt

With the United Nations International Day of Disabled People just around the corner, Proudlock Associates, inclusive design and accessibility consultants joined up with award-winning global architectural practice, Sheppard Robson, to gain first-hand insight into the everyday challenges faced by disabled people when navigating the built environment.  

A view of Oxford Circus, during a group tour looking at the advantages of a shorter diagonal crossing at the crossroads with the junction with Regent Street

A view of Oxford Circus diagonal crossing

Proudlock Associates organised a one off focussed, inclusive design workshop in which senior architects from Sheppard Robson were taken on a tour of the award-winning mixed-use development project, Fitzroy Place in the West End.  The workshop showcased the importance of inclusive design in the everyday experiences of disabled citizens.

The session, led by wheelchair user and director, Tracey Proudlock, proved a unique opportunity for the firm to gain useful insight into the myriad of everyday barriers found in the built environment that can exclude or impede disabled people, such as the design of pedestrian routes, street furniture, acoustics and noise control and lighting.

Fitzroy Place proved an ideal venue for the exercise given its heritage as a former teaching hospital with historic accessibility challenges.  The conservation area of Fitzroy Place includes a Grade II listed chapel, which was preserved throughout the redevelopment process and now sits alongside the bustling mixed-use development site it is today.

Among the key insights that emerged from the exercise were:

Landscaping vs automation

The chapel has stepped access but the developer has installed a hugely practical Sesame lift: this lift allows what looks like simple stone steps to retract and become a platform lift at the touch of a button. The group questioned whether a different design regarding level changes could have removed the lift and enhanced access to seating areas using gentle slopes or ramps.

The importance of independent access

We discussed how having independent access, through gentle slopes to the elevated parts of the public square would have been preferred by many disabled people. The Sesame lift required staff to unlock it. Waiting outside in the wet/cold for staff to come to your assistance to unlock the lift is inconvenient and often frustrating.

Being mindful of obstructions

Visually impaired people benefit from having a strong building line to navigate along.  If building lines are broken up with planters, art or street furniture then there’s a real risk they can miss out on vital information that they need to navigate. Use of features such as planters with good visual contrast could be used to demarcate entrances and assist navigation if positioned correctly.

Shared surfaces should work for all

Shared surfaces are featuring more and more in the West End but naturally, everyone needs to feel safe using these designs. From the group’s tour of the locality, it was clear that poor design and management of highways and streets is still causing many barriers for disabled and older people.

Street level facilities matter

Following a short walk from Fitzrovia to Oxford Circus, the group saw first-hand the advantages offered to mobility impaired people who may opt to use the shorter diagonal crossing at the crossroads with the junction with Regent Street. However, the diagonal crossings have little to offer for wheelchair users since they have kerbs from the pavement in addition they are not accessible for visually impaired people as other than the kerb they have no tactile surfaces.

After the Fitzrovia visit, the party travelled back to Sheppard Robson’s base in Camden Town on the number 88 bus. This proved a further opportunity for the team to experience the realities of everyday life for disabled people. Luckily, the journey proved smooth and uneventful, with the pavements in Oxford Circus area wide and flat, enabling easy boarding of the bus. What’s more, travelling outside of rush hour meant there were no baby buggies competing for the wheelchair space, a further frustrating challenge disabled London commuters have to face on a regular basis.

Commenting on the day, Tracey Proudlock, said:

“This exercise brought home just how many and varied the challenges can be for disabled people simply trying to go about their daily life – even within a space that has been recognised for excellence in inclusive design.”

“We would like to extend a big thank you to everyone at Sheppard Robson for joining in our celebration of IDDP and promoting inclusive design values, in particular to Charles Scott, Eugene Sayers and Paul Webb.”

 

Charles Scott at Sheppard Robson, said:

“As architects, we routinely incorporate inclusive design measures into each new project but we can always do more to appreciate how these might be perceived and utilised by the disabled community. This exercise gave us some invaluable insights that we plan to take on board in our daily work with clients and we would urge other industry professionals do similar to see for themselves how they can help better serve disabled people.”

International Day of Disabled People takes place on 3 December, with people and organisations from around the world taking part in awareness-raising events, workshops and discussions with the aim of promoting empowerment of disabled people and their right to use public spaces and places encountered in everyday life.

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