By Tiffany Meyers, October 2007
A Chicago nonprofit creates a liberating environment for people with disabilities.
The building that houses Chicago’s Access Living, a nonprofit that provides services for and is staffed by people with disabilities, sits at the architectural intersection of sustainable and universal design—but you wouldn’t know it. And that’s the point. “A basic principle of universal design is that an environment shouldn’t make a person with a disability stand out as different,” says Richard Lehner, a partner at Chicago’s LCM Architects. “So the building itself shouldn’t stand out from any other office building either.”
That was core knowledge for LCM, which specializes in barrier-free spaces, but when Lehner and fellow partner John H. Catlin set out to incorporate green features into their plans–a requisite from the city of Chicago, which sold Access Living the site at a discount-they discovered a powerful synergy between the two design paradigms.
It started with the site: proximity to public transportation, an asset for people with disabilities, also contributed to the project’s Silver LEED submission. A two-week pre-occupancy building flush did as well-an obvious benefit for people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS).
Energy-efficient features also had unanticipated overlap: the lighting sensors that balance artificial with natural levels, for instance, inherently offer high-quality light for people with visual impairments.
The zoned ventilation system provides additional climate control for people with a compromised ability to regulate their body temperature, including those with quadriplegia. But there is no single solution to such complex issues. “We learned that what works for one disability doesn’t always work for another,” Lehner says.
That’s nowhere more apparent than in the flooring. LCM discovered through research that carpeting, contrary to popular belief, serves people with MCS by trapping contaminants that would otherwise remain airborne. It also offers traction for people using canes. “But carpeting can be difficult to negotiate with a wheelchair,” says Catlin, who eventually found samples over which his own chair wheels could roll easily.
But when LCM presented these to the Access Living staff, one pattern triggered a seizure for an employee with epilepsy. The solution for that-a more muted pattern by Lees-posed yet another challenge: ensuring there was still enough contrast on hallway borders to help guide people with visual impairments.
Along with earning the Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Barrier-Free America Award and AIA Chicago’s Sustainable Design Award, the building has generated interest from architects, who wonder, What’s the cost of designing this way? “Because we put a lot of thought into every feature up-front, virtually every product is commercially available,” Catlin says. “If there was additional cost, it was minimal.”
Some would argue it’s simply the direction things are taking. “It’s inevitable that two of the most powerful design trends of our day-sustainability and universal access-will merge and change how things are done,” says architect and planner Doug Farr, who chairs LEED for Neighborhood Development, the first LEED program to devote a credit to universal accessibility. “That’s evidence that it’s already happening,” he adds.
Ultimately, Access Living’s areas of overlap stem from a basic theoretical intersection: better, healthier buildings for everyone. “In many ways this work space is more accessible than my own apartment,” says Access Living employee Susan Nussbaum, who uses a wheelchair. “It’s really liberating. And of course a building can be liberating because my freedom is directly relational to my environment.”