Good, Thoughtful Hosts #207: Universal Design with Randy Rhoads

Another episode featuring podcast favorite Randy Rhoads, architect and executive director of affordable housing for Cushing Terrell. We discuss universal design: what it is, how it helps everyone, and its seven guiding principles. We’ll also talk about an apartment project in St. Louis that changed one family’s life just by making mindful adjustments.

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About Our Guest

Randy Rhoads has more than three decades of experience in the design of residential, commercial/retail, educational, and governmental/institutional projects. Over the course of his career, Randy has been the lead architect for more than 32 tax credit developments, overseeing the design and construction of over $1 billion in development costs; and has been responsible for leading the design of over 6,000 mixed-income, multi-family, and elderly apartment units in 14 cities across the United States. He is a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism and holds a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Kansas State University.

Episode #206 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer 00:06
Years ago, I interviewed the CMO of Oxo, the company that makes kitchen products and other home goods. She mentioned that there’s a wall in their office where they display all different sizes and types of lost gloves. The idea, she said, was to remind Oxo employees of all the different types of people and their varying abilities that they’re designing their goods for. I’m Sarah Steimer, and on this episode of Good, Thoughtful Hosts, we’re discussing universal design. It’s all about removing challenges for the person who may have the greatest barriers to use, which in turn results in places and products that are accessible and convenient to everyone who uses them. When designers keep the seven principles of universal design in mind, the impact can be transformative.

Producer 01:17
Today’s special guest

Randy Rhoads 01:19
Hi, I’m Randy Rhoads with Cushing Terrell. I’m an architect, and I’m executive director of affordable housing.

Sarah Steimer 01:27
One of our regulars at this point, one our podcast favorites. So Randy, thank you so much for joining us today. And today, we are going to talk about something that I know a little bit about just from more everyday home products, but hadn’t really thought about in a design process is the concept of universal design. So can you tell me a little bit about that sort of a definition and maybe where we’ve seen some examples of universal design?

Randy Rhoads 01:56
Sure, universal design is designed products and environments to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible without the need for adaptation, or specialized design. So really, it’s about trying to create very flexible environments, to simplify everyone’s life by making products, communications, built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra costs. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities.

Sarah Steimer 02:27
So kind of talking a little bit about maybe where we’ve seen this in homes, office buildings, things like that, one of the places that I know about it best I mentioned sort of home goods, things like Oxo products. So you know, their can openers, things like that I know a lot of their products are created with universal design in mind, because it’s the idea of if you make it accessible and usable for someone who maybe has the greatest challenges with something, then it’s going to be easier for everyone to use.

Randy Rhoads 03:01
Yeah, those type of products are great examples of how ergonomics, how bodies work, how, how our hands work, and how if we use certain kind of padded features or larger connectors to make it easier, it’s easier for everybody, it’s not just easier for somebody potentially with a strength issue or a mobility issue. It’s simpler, and it’s a more usable product for everybody. So some very, very simple examples of a universal design approaches would be utilizing large windows in houses or in buildings, because the more natural light, the more it’s easy for everybody to see and get depth perception and have clear legibility. Lever door handles instead of regular round knob handles because round knob handles require a pretty high degree of ability to have dexterity and grab and pinch and a lever handle, you can just essentially push on it, you don’t even have to have a lot of strength or great dexterity in your hands. Other things like open floor plans where there’s plenty of room for folks that whether they’re in wheelchairs or walkers or if they have some visual acuity issues just so there’s more room for people to move, adjustable countertops and shelves just the things can be adjusted to the height that works best for people, high contrast color and surface texture schemes so that potentially people with some visual acuity issues can really see edges and help discern their environment and understand that something different is happening. And simple little things like package shelves at recessed unit entry in that apartment. You’re walking down a corridor, the apartment door is recessed back from the hallway so there’s a little bit more room to move around. There’s a package shelf to put your keys on or put your purse on and get situated so you could get in and out of your door. Yes, groceries, you got a place to sit things down. So little thoughtful elements like that, that just make everybody’s life simpler and easier.

Sarah Steimer 05:14
Yeah, absolutely. It’s something that I thought of when you mentioned the lever as a door handle, I always think of, there is a door, a particular door in downtown Chicago, that I used to have the worst time opening anytime it was super windy, which not unusual here. And there was like this wind tunnel section and all I could think was, man, if I can’t get through this door, how many other people just decided to eat lunch somewhere else too. So you immediately made me think of that. But, you know, kind of drilling down a little bit further, you know, this concept of universal design. You mentioned to me when we spoke previously that there are seven principles, and I was hoping you could maybe walk us through those principles.

Randy Rhoads 05:56
The idea of there being principles instead of requirements is that this is really about a way of thinking for designers, and just having awareness that we’ve got an opportunity to fold these principles into our design thinking and introduce these approaches to our clients and to our colleagues so that we can really all be working toward making our buildings and outdoor environments and indoor environments as friendly and usable as possible. So the seven principles are principle number one, equitable use, the design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. Principle two: flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. Principle three: simple and intuitive use. Use of the design is easy understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. Principle four: perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of the ambient conditions, or the user sensory abilities. Principle five: tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. Principle six: low physical effort. The design can be used effectively, and comfortably. And with a minimum of fatigue. Principle seven: size and space for approach in use. Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility. We’ll have a link to these principles at the end of our discussion, but just wanting to get these in front of all of our colleagues so that they’re just aware that these principles can be utilized to just open our way of thinking. And these are different than codes. These are different than strict accessibility requirements. That’s why they’re called principles.

Sarah Steimer 08:14
So before we jump into, because we have an example that we really want to talk about today, but before we jump into that, I just wanted to get an idea from you, when it comes to your process when you are sitting down to design something or just review, maybe a plan, something like that. How do you sort of refer to these principles? I mean, is it so baked into what you’re doing from day to day that you don’t even have to think about it too much anymore? Do you kind of have a list that you go through and go okay, are we hitting all of these notes? How does this How has this really played a role in your process?

Randy Rhoads 08:52
Yeah, good question. I’ve been very focused on Universal Design for over 20 years. So at this point, it’s really a part of just how I think about the environment and think about the potential opportunities to create flexible, highly usable spaces and buildings. And so I’ll just give you an example. We’re working on a project right now in Aspen, Colorado. It’s a 277 unit, affordable housing neighborhood. And this is an 11-acre site. It’s big site. And we’re putting in all new streets, all new landscaping. And we’ve got the ability right now to make some decisions about grading. And it’s a lot of trade offs. And there’s a lot of constraints because there’s existing conditions. But it’s really critical to me that we do everything we can at these main entry points to these buildings, that we reduce the number of steps, that we reduce the length of any kind of ramps that are getting into these buildings. It’s not only because those are going to require a lot of effort for the people that use this building every day that live there or work there. But also, I want all of our work to be open and easy to get to for everybody. So we just went through a process where we adjusted some of the street elevations and some of the side elevations to minimize those steps and ramps at these entrances. Also, those look better without a lot of railings and things like that, it’ll just be more friendly. So thinking about universal design principles like access, covered entries, no-step entries, those are just kind of normal parts of my process. And I would hope that through conversations like this, more of our colleagues can adopt that approach as well.

Sarah Steimer 10:45
Yeah, so really, really breaking down barriers before they even become a challenge. It kind of sounds like, let’s definitely jump into talking about a project that you worked on in St. Louis, because this is such a great example of universal design in architecture. Because as you’re about to explain, I don’t want to step on your toes, but this is one of the things that I thought was so cool about it is that it wasn’t just making things accessible at certain entrances, or in certain hallways or certain floors. I mean, this was just an entire complex that was intended to be accessible to everyone and have something that is going to make everyone’s — reduce challenges for basically everyone involved. So without further ado, please tell us more about this project that was actually so influential that it wound up in The New York Times. So take it away.

Randy Rhoads 11:36
Six North apartments in St. Louis, Missouri, is near and dear to my heart. This is one of my projects. This was finished construction in December 2004 and folks started moving in January of 2005. So I would encourage folks to check out the links that go along with this talk today, there’s a Urban Land Institute, ULI did a case study on this project back in 2007. So it had been up and operational for a couple of years. And there’s a lot of detailed information in that case study that’ll be attached. There’s floor plans, there’s photographs, and a lot of detailed information about the development process and the concepts behind it and how it came to be. So I’ll leave it to y’all to look at that. But I’ll just say that what’s super unique about this building is that 100% of the units, 80 units, three-story building, every single unit is designed with universal design principles. It’s not just the ground floor units, or some of the units on a particular wing. It’s 100% of the units are designed to these universal design principles. And the site itself is designed with universal design principles. And what I mean by that is that the site is completely accessible everywhere. So even though there’s seven feet of grade change across this height, there are no steps anywhere. The ground floor units enter through private patios, either directly off the street, or from the rear parking area. And there’s zero steps, the main entrance, the curbs at the street next to the accessible parking spaces are gone, there are no there’s not even a curb cut there. It’s just the sidewalk is ease down to the street. So the folks that park in those accessible spaces don’t have to go search and find the ramp up, they flow directly up to the front door when it’s a covered entry. And there’s plenty of space to push the button on the wall that has an automatic opener on the front doors so not having to deal with the wind that you were dealing with in Chicago. So it’s things like that things like the large windows that I described. It was a big part of the architectural character of this building because it’s kind of a warehouse district. So that architectual character made sense but it also provided a lot of natural light into these apartments. And we use a lot of contrasting colors in the corridors and down the length of the corridors we always had natural light at the end of each hallway and along the length of the hallway at the recessed entries to the apartment units. There’s a change in the carpeting color. So as you look down the hallway, it was cueing you and cluing you into where the entry points were but it also broke down along the hallway so visually, aesthetically, it was nice. Some of the features in the building I talked about the the cupboard main entrance and the stepless entrance. There’s five feet of level area at those front entry doors 32 inch minimum door clearance so that there’s plenty of room for even someone that’s in a motorized wheelchair to get in and out. 18 inches on the latch side of the door, lever hardware again, color contrast in the hallway, we had indirect lighting, so there was very little or no glare at all. So the lighting level was appropriate. And folks with visual acuity issues weren’t being bothered with glare that could make it a little difficult to see where you’re going and read signage, talked about the package shelves, we had package shelves at each entrance. The corridors were all oversized, they were around six feet wide, so there’s plenty of room for folks to pass each other. Even if two motorized wheelchairs were going past each other. And laundry that was in the apartment units are front loaded. And they were raised up on pedestals so that folks that are in wheelchairs didn’t have to bend down as far. But also folks that weren’t in wheelchairs don’t have bend down this far. So it’s even even more convenient for everything. That similar idea carried into the kitchen, with raising the dishwasher off the floor, and raising the oven off the floor. So again, if you have back issues, or mobility issues, you’re not bending down as far to get things in and out of the dishwasher or the oven. And then we had countertop spaces that were adjacent to both the dishwasher and the oven so that you could take something hot out of the oven and place it on a countertop so that transferability was thought through, there’s contrasting colors between the countertop in the kitchen and the cabinetry, so the edge of the countertop was clearly defined. So when you’re setting things down, you could be confident that you’re actually going to have land on the counter, not on the floor, front controls on the stove, so that you’re not reaching across hot elements, and potentially burning yourself or having any kind of an injury. Adjustable shelves in the bedrooms and all the kitchen cabinetry. So if folks are taller or shorter, they have different things that they want to store. There’s that kind of flexibility. Side by side refrigerators offer freezer and refrigerator access evenly and easily. So you’re not having to reach up high to get into the freezer. In the cabinetry in the kitchen, a lazy susan in the corner, that type of cabinetry opens up a lot of storage. And basically having 5-foot turning diameter circles in every room. So every single room, whether it’s bathroom, kitchen, living room could accommodate a wheelchair turning around completely. And in the bathrooms, there was blocking and all the walls and in the showers which were rolling showers, there’s no step into the shower, there was blocking in the walls so that future grab bars could get added if that was necessary if the person who lived in that unit needed more grab bars, so it was more safe for them to live and for them to be able to get in and out of the shower safely.

Sarah Steimer 17:53
I mentioned earlier that it is that idea of removing obstacles before they’re obstacles at all. But you’re also bringing up this idea of flexibility within the design as well. So whether you do need it or not, or whether it might be okay, it is easier for this person one day, but then another person who maybe comes to visit, it’s better if say a counter is higher than lower, something like that. So this idea then to have it being helpful for multiple people. There is a fantastic story that came out of this, which was mentioned in The New York Times article that we’ll have in the show notes about what this sort of universal design allowed in terms of really making some people’s lives significantly better. And I’m just gonna let you go with it because it’s such a great story. I love it so much. Go ahead.

Randy Rhoads 18:45
One of the first new residents that moved in was a woman that was in a motorized wheelchair, she had been in a horrible car accident, and she actually was in a coma for a long period of time. And she had to live in a daycare setting and a nursing home setting. And she couldn’t bring her son to that nursing home setting because she couldn’t physically take care of him in that environment. So fortunately, she had family members that could take care of him, but they were separated for four years. And that was because she could not find a place to live where she could physically get around and take care of herself. So once she found Six North, she moved in there she was able to be reunited with her 7-year-old son and she was able to take care of him. And they were able to live independently as mother and son and she was able to take him down to the fitness center in the building and he’d work out, use the equipment and she’d use some of the equipment that was specially designed for people in wheelchairs. And so they were able to live their life. And you know, I think about it and it’s, you know, this is just an apartment building. It’s just an apartment building, but it’s much more than that. This is a place where people can really become a family again. And their lives can be transformed because they live in a space that they can get around. And they can be independent. And they can be proud of their selves and their living environment. And it’s sustainable. It’s healthy. And it’s all about community. So, yeah, I’m just thrilled that I was able to be part of something that helped that family get reconnected. And I know that there’s lots of other stories like that, as a result of having this kind of thoughtful, flexible design that really allows the widest range of people to be able to live comfortably and really be able to thrive.

Sarah Steimer 20:44
You mentioned the word community in there. And it, the whole time we’ve been talking about this, I keep thinking back to the theme of this entire season, which is this concept of the 15-minute city, which we’ve been using as almost a little bit of an allegory, I suppose for a lot of the topics we’ve had. And I think this is a great example of that idea of, as soon as you cut down the barriers, as soon as you can access everything you want, you know, with a 15-minute commute or whatever it may be, then you save money, you feel healthier, my dog wants to chime in, I apologize. But this sounds like such a great example of you know, I’m sure this probably reduce the amount of time it would take someone to do something like maybe cooking or laundry or something like that, where maybe barriers existed before. And you get that time back, you maybe save a little money that way. But even just your mental health benefits from not having those barriers up and knowing that there is flexibility in things that you are using and accessing on a daily basis.

Randy Rhoads 21:52
Yeah, so totally agree, you know that universal design principles are right in alignment with a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly, connected, urban living. And I think that the more that all of us, as architects and designers can just raise our awareness and keep these principles in front of us and get familiar with them, I think that the more common those kind of outcomes are going to be, because we have more folks that are just raising awareness, and thinking about things holistically, to become as flexible and as user-friendly as possible, from the products that you talked about, kitchen products, to our apartments, to our homes, to our parks to our neighborhoods, what a better world that would be right?

Sarah Steimer 22:46
That’s such a great story. It’s such a heartwarming story that you said about the mother and her son. And just it’s, I like the idea of these being guiding principles, too, because instead of them being rules or codes or whatever it’s like okay, well, wouldn’t everyone like a little bit of a map to make their road trip a little bit simpler, things like that? Well, once again, Randy, it’s always a pleasure to talk to, you know, like you and I have both mentioned, we’ll include some more resources in the show notes about these principles, about that case study about the building in St. Louis. But before we sign off, was there anything about universal design that you wanted to mention that we haven’t touched on yet?

Randy Rhoads 23:26
Well, one of the other links is going to be to the Center for Universal Design. So I had mentioned Ron L. Mace, who was the person that coined the term universal design, he passed away a number of years ago, but all his work and these universal design principles, there’s been a lot of other people that have gotten behind that and really developed a lot of useful information. So I would really encourage folks to spend some time looking at that Institute for Universal Design website, and just looking up reading material on this topic, and reaching out to me, too, I’m happy to talk about this with anybody. So I just think that universal design is one of those key items that as modern-day architects and designers, it’s essential that we think about these types of principles as we take on any kind of design problem.

Sarah Steimer 24:24
Absolutely. And I just want to note too, that when you were going through all the different elements of the residential building in St. Louis, and you mentioned that automatic door button that was on the building, I was reminded that they did have one of those on that stupid building downtown that I would go to and I finally realized I could just use that to get my $15 salad. It was the silliest game changer in the world. But you know it matters. It makes a difference. I saved time and a lot of embarrassment. But, Randy again, thank you so much. I really appreciate it and I do hope that people check out all these really helpful links and maybe print out a copy of those principles when they’re looking to design things, whether it’s entire buildings, a piece of furniture, anything else.

Randy Rhoads 25:12
Awesome. Thanks, Sarah.

Sarah Steimer 25:14
Thank you.

Producer 25:22
Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written, produced, and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold and a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening.

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