by Rick Jones
It would have been enough to simply go through the checklist that came with the comprehensive assessment: Add the handrails, ramps, curb cuts and door operations that help people with mobility challenges get around campus more easily at Cape Cod (CCCC) and Massasoit (MCC) Community Colleges. The campuses were two of many sites slated for site, landscape, pedestrian circulation, and entry improvements as part of the DCAMM Statewide Accessibility Initiative.
Instead, working closely with the civil engineer and landscape architect (for MCC: Nitsch Engineering and Crowley Cottrell; for CCCC: Brennan Engineering and Lemon Brooke), we developed comprehensive solutions that not only solve for MAAB, but address aesthetics, native plantings, and stormwater management.
“We put so much time and effort into making sure that people who are perceived as different understand what it would be like if they were normal,” says James Robinson, a recent Duke graduate with sight challenges who made a video about his experience. “But we rarely ever do the opposite. Pushing those who perceive themselves as normal to understand what it would be like if they were different.”
The architect’s job is to “do the opposite;” to push ourselves into understanding what it would be like to swim in the “sea of difference,” as Robinson describes his experience, and then design places that meet those differences with intelligence and grace.
This inclusive approach is known as universal design or designing for accessibility, or just plain old good design. Regardless of what we call it, it’s all about empathy. We have to imagine how all kinds of people with diverse abilities can experience the same place without compromise.
Every project that Jones undertakes embraces universal design concepts. Quite often, we are working on campuses constructed well before laws that govern universal access were enacted, which means we don’t have the luxury of starting from scratch.
Solutions within buildings are solved as part of renovations. Many buildings have had incremental updates that include improvements to accessibility in compliance with the law: bathroom updates, ramps, etc.
However, on a campus there is an ill-defined limit outside the building where the accessibility scope stops. It is not a standalone building in a parking lot where you can draw a clean line. Campuses are networks of circulation, and we are often tasked with drawing these lines in ways that improve accessibility, while limiting scope to contain costs.
The all-important spaces between buildings are particularly plagued by impediments, whether the small moments of a single step or two, or the sweeping challenges of a sloped walk that exceeds code limits and runs for hundreds of feet. At the same time, sitework and landscape offer some of the best opportunities to achieve universal access and can be far less expensive than renovation or building new. Creatively manipulating a site can shape a system of access that everyone uses in the same way; raising the grade so that no stairs are required, for example.
More than Accessibility
That’s why it was gratifying to work on these two campus projects whose primary motivation was improvement to accessibility in the landscape and circulation network that ties each campus together, offering the opportunity to solve for access in a way that also improved campus resilience overall.
While different in terms of culture, landscape, original design intent and so on, each underwent a systemic approach that looks at how the whole campus can benefit from improved access strategies. It starts by identifying areas of exclusion and ends with inclusive design that brings social and environmental benefits to all users, as well as economic benefits to the schools.
“I just want to be able to connect with people,” Robinson says. “It’s because I really live in your world that I need your help overcoming the distance between us.”
Architects, along with our colleagues in the landscape and engineering professions, have the opportunity with the built environment to help shrink the distances between people rather than magnify them. We would be foolish not to make the most of it.
Rick Jones, AIA, LEED AP BD+C is the founder and director of Jones Architecture.