Inaccessible Access: A Paradox of Design

A smooth, gently sloped plaza leading to the Taylor Family Digital Library exemplifies best practices in designing accessible entrance areas.
A smooth, gently sloped plaza leading to the Taylor Family Digital Library exemplifies best practices in designing accessible entrance areas.

TEXT Loraine Fowlow

With strengthening accessibility requirements, all new buildings in Canada meet—and sometimes surpass—minimum building code requirements for barrier-free design. Paradoxically however, the execution of finished projects often falls short of the goal of providing accessibility for all. Specifically, exterior entrance areas often present obstacles to wheelchairs, resulting in challenging access and egress to fully accessible buildings. The design of these areas can fall into a grey zone of professional responsibility—but it is precisely these details that can make or break an otherwise barrier-free building.

As with so many aspects of architecture, a significant part of the issue relates to scale. The average manual wheelchair’s front caster wheels are three to five inches in diameter, and it is these wheels that “break trail,” so to speak. It doesn’t take much of a difference in surface elevation to catch these relatively small wheels, resulting in a sudden stop or pitching the wheelchair forward. Even a half-inch discrepancy in surface continuity can present a hazard, particularly if taken at any speed.

One instance of this problem occurs when hardscaping materials are unevenly surfaced and don’t lay flat, such as with brick pavers, which are often irregular in profile. Another common culprit is the differential settlement that can occur when ground-plane materials are not homogeneous. For example, a slab of concrete often tilts upwards due to settlement, resulting in a sloped surface and raised edges. Brick pavers are prone to settlement in all directions, often resulting in a jumbled surface of slanted and projecting bricks that is extremely hazardous for a wheelchair user to navigate. If placed together, the varied settlement between concrete and brick can create a hodgepodge of the ground-plane surface.

An example of inaccessible access to an otherwise barrier-free building is a recently completed low-rise office complex in Calgary. It provides full accessibility once inside, but presents an obstacle course for wheelchair users outside. The apparently innocuous pavement leading up to the building is curved, and therefore slopes in two directions. Furthermore, the surface is subdivided into narrow strips of poured concrete slabs alternating with rectangles of brick pavers. Navigating the narrow, curved and doubly sloped strip of concrete (while avoiding the uneven brick surfaces) is difficult, requiring the wheelchair user to simultaneously push uphill while controlling the turning required—a balancing act engaging both vertical and horizontal stability. A Cirque du Soleil performer would have no trouble with the acrobatics required, but the average wheelchair user is exhausted by the time he gets to the building’s front doors—if he makes it that far. While the designer of the exterior environment no doubt had good intentions regarding the varied appearance of the pavement, there was no consideration given to the experience of someone who might be traversing the area on wheels.

In contrast to this stands the Taylor Family Digital Library (TFDL) at the University of Calgary, designed by Kasian Architecture Interior Design and Planning, with landscape architecture by O2 Planning + Design. Sited adjacent to the larger pedestrian environment of the university quadrangle, the TFDL provides seamless integration of building entrance with its homogeneously surfaced exterior hardscaping. Variations in surrounding topography are handled through gentle sloping of the ground plane, so as to link between neighbouring buildings without the need for stairs. The main plaza flows directly into the west entrance of the building, which has a low-profile door threshold that provides completely barrier-free access. The east entrance is accessed via a ramp from a pedestrian and service vehicle mall, a sequence that is entirely curb-free. The ground plane surrounding the TFDL is one continuous uninterrupted surface that does away entirely with the need for providing alternative barrier-free access routes: through the simple means of not including barriers in the first place.

Therein, perhaps, lies one solution to the paradox of inaccessible accessibility: minimize the barriers to begin with. This requires thoughtful consideration of the realities of traversing the ground on wheels, coupled with a conceptual framework of barrier-free design thinking that goes beyond the building code. The code provides minimum requirements for accessibility, which can be followed by rote without creative consideration. But to design to code alone is the technical equivalent of paint-by-numbers. It’s possible to embrace the spirit of accessibility and go beyond the code, inside and out, to eliminate inaccessibility, by design.

Loraine Fowlow, MRAIC, is an Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Calgary, and has recently begun exploring the built environment on wheels.