Spotlight on Universal Design: Q&A with Stanis Smith

The artwork Double Blind (2008), by Antonia Hirsch, was commissioned by the City of Vancouver for the atrium of Vancouver Community College’s Broadway Campus building. Image courtesy Rick Hansen Foundation. 

In early March, the Rick Hansen Foundation hosting their annual conference online. #APN2021: Accelerating Access brought together thought-leaders, researchers and industry leaders in accessibility and the built environment to share ideas and collaborate on solutions to accelerate the AED industry forward towards improved accessibility. 

Architect Stanis Smith, a board member of the Rick Hansen Foundation, offered  Canadian Architect some thoughts on the basics of accessibility, and how architects can benefit from integrating universal design in their practices. 

What is Universal Design?

The term ‘Universal Design‘ was coined by architect Ronald Mace to describe the concept of designing products and the built environment to be aesthetic, useful and accessible for all users – regardless of their age, ability, or status in life. The seven Universal Design principles that he and his team developed have been widely accepted by many architects and clients to promote a more accessible and inclusive built environment, and they form the foundation of the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification program described in more detail below.

Image courtesy Rick Hansen Foundation

Why should architects care about Universal Design?

Because it is the next big thing! According to StatsCan, one fifth of all Canadian adults have some form of disability, making them the single largest minority group in society – and this will increase dramatically with our aging demographic. On a pragmatic level, designing buildings using Universal Design principles will increase their appeal and accessibility to all users, including you and me as we age. On a principled level, Universal Design is the right thing to do from a diversity and inclusion perspective.

The architectural profession has taken an admirable stand when it comes to Sustainable Design, embracing aspirational standards and challenges that go beyond code minimums, such as BOMA BEST, LEED, Architecture 2030 and many others. However, the profession is behind the curve when it comes to Universal Design, and we need to change that.

What changes are happening to Universal Design legislation in Canada?

Last year, the Federal Government unanimously passed landmark legislation: the Accessible Canada Act. In simple terms, this law requires all Federal Government departments and federally regulated agencies to be accessible to a degree that is significantly greater than current code minimum requirements. For those more familiar with the United States legislation, this bill is Canada’s answer to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many provinces are now following the lead of the Federal Government to pass similar legislation.

Change is happening on the legislative side, and I encourage architects to embrace Universal Design and get ahead of the curve as they have done with Sustainable Design. It’s a safe bet that both private and public clients will expect their architects and consultants to be better informed about Universal Design principles and practice than has previously been the case.

Image courtesy Rick Hansen Foundation

Will Universal Design limit my creativity as an architect?

Designing for the widest possible range of abilities should be an exciting architectural challenge. Sadly, it is sometimes viewed by designers as a box-checking activity that limits their creativity, and by clients as yet another cost and obstacle they would rather avoid. My challenge to both the design and the client community is to embrace the principles of Universal Design and find creative ways to make your buildings more appealing and accessible to society at large. Use the tools available to architects that reward innovation and creativity rather than constraining it. This approach does not necessarily involve additional cost, as discussed in more detail below.

What tools can help architects with Universal Design?

Canada is a world-leader in developing tools that can help architects with Universal Design. The Rick Hansen Foundation has put significant research and consultation into developing a rating system for accessibility called the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification programTM (or RHFAC).

The RHFAC program includes recommendations for people with mobility, hearing, vision and other disabilities. It is performance-based rather than prescriptive, and it challenges designers to go beyond minimum code compliance and explore creative ways in which they can broaden the appeal and accessibility of their buildings to the widest possible range of users. Most importantly, it recognizes and rewards architects and clients for innovative approaches to Universal Design. Two levels of certification are available for the RHFAC program – Certified and Certified Gold – and can be obtained either during design or after occupancy of a building.

Image courtesy Rick Hansen Foundation

What about the additional cost of Universal Design?

Designing a building to Universal Design principles does not necessarily involve a cost premium. Research published last year by HCMA Architecture + Design demonstrates that if designers implement RHFAC recommendations during design, a building can achieve RHFAC Certification for little or no additional cost. Furthermore, that research demonstrates that a building can achieve RHFAC Gold Certification, the highest form of recognition by the program, for a modest construction-cost premium of approximately 1% depending on project type.

Increasing accessible design in the built environment benefits everyone. Ultimately, our role as architects is to design a better world for everyone, including ourselves.

Stanis Smith is a Rick Hansen Foundation board member and past chair of the RHFAC committee where he advised Foundation staff on the design, scope, development and distribution of the RHFAC program. His career highlights include being the CEO of architecture firm Architectura, and being an Executive Vice President at Stantec, a 22,000-person global architectural and engineering design firm.

For more information on RHFAC, visit