“I just want to be able to connect with people,” Robinson says. “It’s because I really live in your world that I need your help overcoming the distance between us.”
Architects, along with our colleagues in the landscape and engineering professions, have the opportunity with the built environment to help shrink the distances between people rather than magnify them. We would be foolish not to make the most of it.
(IMAGE CIRCA 2015)
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Designing for access is so much more than ramps and handrails. It’s an empathetic and holistic way of thinking that aims to integrate the broadest possible set of opportunities of a given project in ways that bring people together rather than setting them apart. Solutions appear simple, or better yet, don’t appear at all to the everyday user. Which means they are underpinned by a complex process marked by thoughtful and thorough analysis of conditions, conducted by experienced field teams with comprehensive knowledge of the technical requirements of universal design, and a client committed to an inclusive outcome.
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The Long View
Regardless, providing improved access to buildings also creates more equitable access to programs and resources provided by these institutions. This aids in student recruitment and retention, as well as community outreach, providing long-term stability for the college. When this access also supports a self-maintaining ecosystem of planting, stormwater management, and wildlife, it not only offers aesthetic and wellness benefits, but allows the campus to spend facility resources elsewhere.
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Think about when to disappear, and when to show up big.
Sometimes, there is an opportunity for a grand gesture to demonstrate a connection that solves for universal access. At Norwich’s Mack Hall, the bridge connecting the third floor of the building to the Upper Parade Ground spans over the Memorial Walkway and is a big architectural gesture that suits the scale and culture the campus. Far more often, it is the micro adjustments of grades, walkways, building entries, edge conditions, and material treatments like those of CCCC and MCC that feel as if they have always been there (or should have been).
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Managing stormwater offers opportunities to improve accessibility and environmental impacts. When discussing the CCCC campus identity with stakeholders, they identified more with the wooded, natural landscape rather than the brick and concrete of much of the campus circulation. This informed the design approach, which reinforces the system of fluid paths while introducing a stormwater collection and management system featuring native plantings, swales, and drainage structures that straddle and duck under the path system. Bridges cross over these swales to provide accessible entries to buildings.
By opening up the main campus entry visually as well as improving access, the entire campus feels more welcoming, providing a completely different first impression to potential students that reinforces the school’s recruitment strategy.
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Combine a full range of social and environmental sustainability goals
What is the social mandate of the institution? Are there venues for public events? Campuses often have a community responsibility that reaches beyond their immediate user group, which changes how we think about access. A performance hall for example, may need to be accessible to community members on a February evening coming from a remote parking lot, as well as the students walking across the quad from their residence hall.
“I don’t have a problem with the way that I see,” he says. “My only problem is with the way that I’m seen.” — James Robinson
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MCC too has a rigorous geometric building and site organization, but its site is relatively compact and flat, a brutalist “concrete carpet” connected by stairs over subtle grade changes. Like its southeastern Massachusetts compatriot, Cape Cod Community College (CCCC), which is tucked gracefully into its native Cape landscape with meandering slopes and subtle grade changes, it merits an approach more akin to watchmaking: painstaking and intricate, with a goal to effect substantial change with subtle moves.
Logically integrate design solutions with infrastructure, maintenance, and operations regimens
This may seem obvious; ask the question anyway: How can what we’re doing affect infrastructure, maintenance and operations? When working with Norwich on the central campus revitalization project, improving the accessibility of the main circulation spine was combined with replacement of the primary steam line, snow storage areas, and new landscape design reinforcing the connection between the Upper Parade Ground and the Chapel.
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Identify projects with the greatest impact to users
Limited resources require prioritization. First and foremost, all buildings must be accessible. Secondarily, to provide equal experiences for all visitors to campus (student, faculty, community, etc.), and to beautify. At Massasoit Community College (MCC), the Technology Building had no accessible entrance. Modifying the connection to a nearby building solved this deficiency, while enhancing a program of native plantings on campus.
Reinforce the unique nature of each campus’ culture, population, topography, and landscape character
Once the essential elements that physically and culturally define the campus are identified, the job is to determine how best to leverage or enhance them through accessibility measures. For example, Norwich University, with its military heritage, has a traditional culture that emphasizes formality and ceremony; it occupies an expansive rural site marked by rectilinear terraces and plateaus amid extreme grade changes. Here, big and dramatic moves make sense both physically and culturally.
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Map accessibility barriers and pedestrian hazards
Working with the Statewide Accessibility Initiative (SAI) of the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) led to a detailed mapping of auditory, physical, and visual barriers at both Cape Cod Community College and Massasoit Community College. This ranged from non-compliance and safety concerns, to completely inaccessible buildings and landscapes. This process requires bouncing back and forth between the micro (a laser level laid upon the walking surface) to the macro (how do these systems of circulation stitch the campus together).
It’s worth noting that the SAI does not currently include criteria for cognitive, learning, and neurological disabilities, although there is a growing movement — and an architectural specialty to go with it — to address, for example, sensory processing disorders, through the built environment.