For the achievement of most goals, patience is required. “Wees geduldig” I am not a patient person. Many women believe that patience and persistence usually pay off, and it’s much more ladylike!

But, after attending the meetings at SABS of the Working Committee for the SANS10400-S document on behalf of SAIA, I think I should be outraged at the general attitude towards universal design, and shocked at the attitude of many officials toward the design of buildings. It is virtually impossible to get past the condescension of society regarding the emancipation of Persons with Disabilities. I know this is not peculiar to our country, but it is nevertheless disappointing to run into it at every turn. As they say “Minimum standards sanctify mediocrity”. 

Architectural development everywhere should be interested in sustainability. When architects dream we think of ‘our’ buildings as being there forever, “there is no art as impermanent as architecture”. Buildings are dynamic, and are forever changing. Everything about money and buildings says they are expected to live only brief time, typically 30 years. Most mortgages go for just 25 or 30 years, and so the asset life comes to match the finance period.

One of the reasons why I’m so against having to ‘adapt’ buildings is that it is contradictory to sustainability. Making buildings accessible is generally thought of as a ‘retrofit’. These stylish words make it all seem okay. It’s also wasteful. One cannot possibly predict what the future holds for most buildings, except maybe for religious buildings, and monuments and even those have had their fair share of adaptations, as with the advent of electricity, and who knows what else the future holds in store for us?

With accessibility the usual adaptations, which often relate to levels, are brash and not as seamless as they would have been if incorporated at conception. The Built Environment Committee for the Natal Heritage body, AMAFA, was asked to consider the installation of high tech security for the High Court in Durban about a month ago. We were shown around the building where sub-contractors had surface mounted full-size cardboard cut-outs of the cameras, cabling etc. that were going to be used. What a pleasure! Usually we are only called in after the installation, and then we’re supposed to okay it. There was even the opportunity to indicate the heights for the access gadgets to suit Persons with Disabilities. It was also admitted that within five years there would probably be a more sophisticated system installed, one that has not yet been invented!

Things are always changing. “The most important operative words in dealing with buildings are respect and sensitivity” - Clem Labine. The essence of good Urban Design is respect for what came before.

Perhaps I should stick to being patient and persistent, to achieve accessibility in public buildings and spaces, and it will become part of our culture. On the sustainability side its well known that low energy, and maintenance costs will be a more certain way of this happening, and rather more capital will be invested in the original building. That’s not to say in expensive flashy and high tech finishes, but in the basic building; this refers to RDP housing as well as top of the range office blocks. I rage at RDP housing, with no insulation, no fascias to protect the ends of the rafters, not oriented correctly, and electric cookers handed over to poor people who will have to pay the high running costs. Very seldom is universal access considered: with very small adjustments to the planning these houses could be accessible whilst keeping the envelope the same.

In the end I suppose it’s going to be a bit of both - outrage and patience - which will move us forward into Universal Access.