As part of our ongoing study and observation of the GUDC certified Mary Free Bed YMCA I decided to check in with the project’s principal architect, Michael Perry to get an update on how Universal Design has impacted this particular YMCA and why Universal Design (UD) makes sense from a return on investment perspective. We discussed what led Mr. Perry to focus on universally designed projects and why he thinks more businesses and organizations should embrace a design philosophy that emphasizes inclusion of all regardless of ability level. Our conversation is below. - Michael Rotella, GUDC Director.
Michael Rotella, GUDC Director: When and how did Universal Design become a focus in your work as Executive Vice President of Progressive AE?
Michael Perry AIA, Progressive AE Executive VP: As an architect, I have always had an interest in ease of use and functionality and as a company, we started about ten years ago designing outdoor spaces that could be used and enjoyed by everyone. The Mary Free Bed YMCA was an exciting opportunity to fully integrate Universal Design strategies across a 36-acre campus and it involved the community throughout the process gaining buy-in and support.
Rotella: Is there a personal story from your background that made you aware of the hurdles to access in the built environment or otherwise?
Perry: As my parents began to age, I became more fully aware of the challenges they faced. Small things became larger and required more time as more barriers began to surface. I even began to observe toddlers and think about keeping them safe as they randomly moved through a space unaware of potential hazards. It’s really just an awareness that has been built over time as you interact with people of all abilities.
Rotella: Aside from the Mary Free Bed YMCA in Grand Rapids, what are some other Universal Design projects you're working on or have been involved with?
Perry: Our recent journey with Universal Design has been with Merck, a Fortune 500 company whose leadership is continuing its quest for creating facilities that are more accessible and compliant with Universal Design principles. Their leadership is promoting best practices of accessibility on a global scale and I believe that Universal Design strategies can help to differentiate companies in the marketplace. I just recently returned from the international Zero Project conference at the United Nations Center in Vienna where I presented the Mary Free Bed YMCA. The Y project received an award as an “innovative practice” reflecting the advancement of accessibility best practices in the built environment. The Y was the first building certified as universally designed under the standards created by the Global Universal Design Commission.
Rotella: As a proponent of implementing Universal Design in various projects I assume you see a unique value. What is that value and what works for you about Universal Design?
Perry: I really feel that Universal Design, if promoted properly, can assist in positioning an organization in three key areas. First, today’s workforce continues to be more diverse in all aspects. The design of a space should be easy to understand regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge or language skills. Secondly, competition for talent and employee retention is a reality faced by most organizations today. Providing a work environment that is based on Universal Design principles can be marketed as a positive differential for team members. And, thirdly, Universal Design strategies create a safer workplace. Reducing accidents mitigates lost productivity and related expenses at the workplace, which is a concern for all organizations. A key principle and outcome of Universal Design is that the design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
Rotella: What sort of clients and projects should consider Universal Design as a design focus?
Perry: Universal Design sets out to improve the usability, safety and health of all users. It’s the idea that a campus, building or product can be created in a way that makes it usable by a diverse range of people who have varying abilities. Universal Design strategies can be applied to all environments and I think it’s important to remember that a few small changes can make big differences. Community, recreation and fitness facilities are building types that can benefit from a universally designed built environment primarily because of the diversity of users and abilities. We’ve developed a matrix that helps organizations prioritize which UD strategies have a relatively low cost yet high impact toward achieving their goals.
Rotella: What are your thoughts on financial and less tangible forms of return on investment associated with Universal Design?
Perry: The economics of Universal Design is an area that needs to be talked about more often. We’ve been able to show, through our one-year post occupancy validation process that there is a significant increase in the key indicators that drive growth. By providing a campus that incorporates Universal Design strategies, our research shows membership growth, gate visits, program participation and revenue have all exceeded original projections. I think the biggest return on investment should be thought of as a “return on human potential.” If we use the Y as an example, there is a whole segment of that community coming to a Y that never did previously. Those individuals, who are challenged with diverse abilities, are now exercising, building a stronger social network and improving their quality of life – that’s what I am most proud of.