Universal design and access in the built environment

by | Jun 21, 2023 | Building design trends

If you take the time to look closely at Australia’s city landscapes you will find a patchwork of construction sites, closed footpaths and barriers such as parked vehicles. They are probably minor inconveniences for many, but these random obstacles to our everyday movement offer a small insight into how people with mobility impairment, ambulant disability, vision impairment, parents with children, and the elderly, must negotiate our streets, transport hubs and buildings. In this article we will discuss Universal Design (UD) and how it could benefit the many users who access the built environment. 

Why UD and what is it? 

There are approximately 8 billion diverse people living in the world, a number that completely overshadows the Australian population. However, of our 26 million inhabitants, over 4.4 million or 17% have some form of disability according to the Australian Network on Disability. A UD approach that caters for the broadest range of users from the outset can result in buildings and places that can be used by all people, regardless of language, cognitive, visual and physical abilities. This proactive approach can eliminate or reduce the need for expensive changes at a later stage to meet the needs of some users not initially considered. Universal design allows for flexibility and adaptability to meet the diverse range of additional and growing needs of people today, and in the future. Its principles can be outlined as follows (see Centre for Universal Design Australia for more information).

Equitable use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.  

  • Provide the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible or at the very least equivalent when not possible
  • Avoid segregating or stigmatising any users 
  • Provisions for privacy, security, and safety should be equally available to all users, eg accessible egress paths. 
  • Make the design appealing to all users, eg access features with seamless integration into the design

Flexibility in use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. 

  • Provide choice in methods of use (consider wheelchairs, vision impairment, assisted walking) 
  • Accommodate right or left-handed access and use, eg unisex accessible toilets pan balance (Left and right hand) 
  • Facilitate the user’s accuracy and precision 
  • Provide adaptability to the user’s pace 

 Simple and intuitive use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. 

  • Eliminate unnecessary complexity, eg angled stairs setout   
  • Be consistent with user expectations and intuition 
  • Accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills 
  • Arrange information consistent with its importance, eg direct and concise signage  
  • Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion, eg reception desk and counters  

 Perceptible information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities. 

  • Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for presentation of essential information, eg the use of images or well-known symbols  
  • Provide adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings 30% luminance contrast required under AS1428.1 
  • Maximise legibility of essential information, eg text as per NCC specification Arial typeface 
  • Differentiate elements in ways that can be described, make it easy to give instructions or directions, eg tactile signage 
  • Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations, eg hearing augmentation or in commercial offices a quiet room provision. 

 Tolerance for error: The design minimises hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.  

  • Arrange elements to minimise hazards and errors: most used elements, most accessible; hazardous elements eliminated, isolated, or suitable barriers in the undercroft of a stair  
  • Provide warnings of hazards and errors, eg tactile ground surface indicators (TGSI) 
  • Provide fail safe features, eg handrails and kerbs or visual cues 
  • Discourage unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance, eg avoid long dark corridors  

 Low physical effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.  

  • Allow users to maintain a neutral body position, eg seating arm and back rest  
  • Use reasonable operating forces, eg doors at 20N force  
  • Minimise repetitive actions, eg ramps are not to exceed 3.6m in height 
  • Minimise sustained physical effort, eg unnecessary steps leading to ambulant facilities 

 Size and space for approach and use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.  

  • Provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user
  • Make reach to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user 
  • Accommodate variations in hand and grip size, eg door lever handle with 20mm turn  
  • Provide adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance, eg BindiMaps

How is universal design different to accessible design?

Access and accessibility refer to fulfilling a set of measurable requirements like technical notes and specifications, as prescribed in legislative requirements, eg the NCC, relevant Australian standards and the Disability Standards Accessible Public Transport (DSAPT). This can result in accessible features being incorporated as afterthoughts. It can also rely on the addition of specialised features to fulfil legislative requirements, such as lifts and ramps. However, mechanical features, such as lifts, can break down and render an entire building or train station inaccessible to sections of the community. 

Universal design separates itself from accessible design by focusing on user-centred design from the earliest stages of a project – not just at the end stage. This can result in the seamless integration of inclusive features that are often invisible and that do not stigmatise users.

What are the legal requirements when it comes to designing access to buildings?

For builders, architects and planners, there are legislative requirements that mandate access requirements.  Nationally, the main requirements for disability access are found in the Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards 2010, made under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1992. This applies to all new building projects in which an application for construction approval is required to be made to the relevant state authority. They include minimum requirements, for example, the provision of well-lit ‘Exit’ signs in buildings or carparking spaces for people with disability, as per NCC 2022 D4D6. 

While each State and Territory has its own general disability legislation, these do not impose direct requirements for premises. Instead, legislation in each jurisdiction requires service providers to avoid discriminating against people with disability, and this legal minimum is often satisfied by providing an alternative, often inappropriate accessible route to obtain a service. 

How much does UD add to the cost of a project?

Universal design will typically not add additional costs to a project.  Applying universal design principles can often save costs. It does this by reducing the dependence on mechanical features that require maintenance, and by preventing the need to retrofit features to comply with legislation. UD can increase revenue and financial viability at a facility by catering for a broader cross-section of the community, bringing about increased patronage. 


UD offers a potential solution that aims to maximise the utility and convenience of the built environment equally for all users. It differs from accessible design by delivering a unified user experience, irrespective of ability. The approach is built on the recognition that accessible design features are often useful to all and it avoids making visual distinctions between different users on the basis of their abilities. Eventually, the separated wheelchair and pram entrance as the physical embodiment of accessible design thinking, becomes the main entrance in a design which embraces the universal approach. 

Public spaces shouldn’t just be accessible to a majority of users; accessibility by all needs to be encouraged in the public domain.  In the absence of universal legislation, it is essential the community considers and embraces empathic design thinking, to welcome and encourage everyone to freely move around our public spaces. We all at some stage in life will likely experience at least one impairment ourselves and surely, we would like to know that we will be catered for? MBC Group believes that the inclusion of UD into the early stages of the design process in all project sizes, will meet everyone’s needs regardless age, gender, cultural background, disability and language as a successful design is universal. 

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