On the level

I’ve been working a lot recently with engineers, who, like architects, are a race apart. While architects are besotted with context, engineers tend to focus on the finer detail. One thing I have come up against is the fact that for universal access, level is level. Floor surfaces are really what concerns me. Outside any opening, like a door, for persons with physical limitations should be level. This makes it easier for wheelchair users and ambulant people with disabilities to navigate through. Otherwise, a wheelchair user would have to apply brakes, let go of the chair, open the door, undo the brakes, and then go forward quickly, especially if the door has a closer. If the door has no roof covering and there is rain or flooding, the individual may get wet. That is why engineers will always ask for a 1% slope. It could easily be detailed at the threshold in a simple way to divert the water penetration, but that is a bit more complex. Even if some water does go inside, it is not a disaster.

Typically schools have an outside access way and a series of classrooms leading off of it. Even though this is often as wide as three metres to allow for passing pedestrian traffic, it will probably be sloped to the outside, according to good building practice. This means that when the occasional windy rainstorm happens, the classroom floor will not get wet. Job well done! Sometimes, instead of the slight slope of the floor, but often in addition to this slope, there might be a small step into the classroom. This excludes a whole group of people as teachers, learners and parents of learners in wheelchairs, or ambulant people with disabilities. Of course, not much help is required to overcome this for the users, but my point is that help is needed and universal design asks that all people should have the same options. It is such a small point, but these small irritations and the thoughtlessness of the designers add up and reflect poorly - as far as I am concerned - on the architect and their client, which is quite often government. The rural schools are especially bad at this and it wont raise costs to make the buildings independently accessible to everyone.

On external paved areas, like piazzas, which have a duty to look attractive, would not be so if there were long slopes on the hardened areas. This is especially true if noble materials are used, as they tend to glisten when wet and the unevenness spoils the whole effect. Outlets are often incorporated into the paving leaving slots or gaps, which are actually a danger to a wide range of people. Even at the beautiful Apartheid museum, the outside areas are (in some cases) broad slabs with gaps of about 100mm between, which does aesthically break it up and drain surface water. Although, in doing so, it is not useful for wheelchair users, blind people, or women wearing high heals! When the QASA building in Gillitts, Durban was adapted to be universally accessible, it was not easy to convince the top-notch builders that the south entry porch and the verandah on the north side should be level. The tables on the verandah are now absolutely level too and can be moved to any position in the space.

Wheelchair users do not have to apply brakes when they are sitting at the tables either. A wheelchair user can enter the front door without any assistance. There is actually no water ingress on the south side, which is where the weather usually comes from. As an extra precaution a two-metre overhang has been installed to protect the carpeted floor finish.