In the architectural industry sustainability has become the buzzword for 2013. I don’t know if clients have bought into it completely yet, but most are giving it passing thought.

I feel quite jealous that this sector has managed to crack it, and wish that I knew the secret as to how they did it. I know that Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was a tipping point, and it really is a compelling book and film, especially the visuals, which are so striking.

Accessibility is not at odds with sustainability. I have just come across a circular announcing an award from World Architectural News (WAN):

“The WAN Sustainable Building of the Year Award 2012 aims to showcase projects that incorporate sustainability into every facet of their design, creating solutions that not only tick the boxes of sustainability criteria, but also respond to their environment and the needs of their users, while producing architecture that uplifts and inspires us.”

The italics are mine.

I wonder if any effort towards universal accessibility will be made either by those who enter their projects, or the judges?

The six categories include: Education, Healthcare, Civic, Urban Design, Commercial and Residential. In South Africa we are not legally obliged to have a residential project universally accessible, but all of the remainder fall under legal imperatives.

With all the projects entered into this award, the architects will have had to make a decision to make the building sustainable before putting pencil to paper, or doing the feasibility exercises.

It does require a lot more effort to make the buildings universally accessible, so that all those with functional limitations - temporary or permanent - can use them together, but it probably won’t involve additional finance.

I am often asked to assist people to make their buildings accessible, ranging from small projects to large ones, both old and new. Mostly I am approached only at the finishing stages, or after the foundations have been cast and the walls built. In the hospitality industry I think that the providers are realising that the broad range of consumers will be served if accommodation is accessible. However, it probably will be costly if only thought about once building has started. It isn’t only about getting the toilet at the right height, and a ramp at the front door.

As a matter of fact, quite often a ramp at the front door is not really suitable if it is hard up against the front door. People with luggage also fall under the category of ‘special needs’. Landings are invaluable. Where the parking is situated in relation to the front door is also critical, and the route to the door. The thresholds of all doors are also extremely important, as it can be a barrier that defeats the whole purpose of the building. Cross ventilation in all the rooms is often forgotten, and ease of opening and closing the windows, which all goes towards being independent. The positioning of the furniture should be worked out ahead of time so that there is space between the bed and the sidewalls, and that the bedside tables are easy to move out of the way. Chairs should also not be too heavy for an ordinary person to move so that there is enough space for everyone. Decluttering is key. Don’t forget that a wheelchair user probably feels safer if the door to the bathroom opens outwards: and when it is open it should not block off any other circulation route. Wheelchair –friendly is often the phrase used to promote the venue: But is it?

These things all seem obvious, but they are well worth getting right, especially in a business environment, where one actually is transgressing the essence of the law, and ultimately the Bill of Rights.