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Vipul Singh | Most builders are not sensitized towards universal design

Back to basics: Singh says incorporating accessibility into building design is as important as including toilets and other amenities.  (Singh says incorporating accessibility into building design is as important as including toilets and other amenities. )Premium
Back to basics: Singh says incorporating accessibility into building design is as important as including toilets and other amenities.
(Singh says incorporating accessibility into building design is as important as including toilets and other amenities. )

Vipul Singh talks about some of the challenges of incorporating universal design into building plans in India

New Delhi: What do Velcro, Google, electric toothbrushes, tactile paving and flexible drinking straws have in common? All are examples of universal design, a term coined by architect Ronald L. Mace in 1985 to describe an environment that allows all people equal access, regardless of their level of mobility or disability.

While simple in concept, the idea has yet to take hold in India, where stairs, circular knobs and poor urban planning are the norm. Architect Vipul Singh, a partner at Design Accord Consultants, elaborates on the concept of universal design, and talks about some of the challenges of incorporating it into building plans in India. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Why is universal design important?

Incorporating accessibility into building design is as important as including toilets and other amenities. The reason is that, while most of us are not presently sensitized for accessibility, with time and circumstance, everyone and anyone could be subjected to a circumstance where accessibility may be required. They could have an accident or a temporary disability, it could be a permanent disability or an age-related issue.

The point is that everybody and anybody has the right to access each and every part of the spaces that we build. We have to think about it in totality, even if it means compromising on certain other things, like space.

How do you incorporate universal design into your buildings?

Our company works primarily with interiors and landscape design. So when we start a design, we start thinking about it from the point where the person arrives from the vehicle. How does the person get into the building? How do they navigate the different building levels, or use the common facilities of the building, and so on and so forth.

For us, in most of our designs, we have to negotiate levels, so we have ramps. We also have to take into consideration the tactile surface on which people walk. We have to consider all the people who would be using the space—people suffering from blindness, or people with leg injuries, people on crutches—so it’s important to consider the walking surface, because if they aren’t level, that can cause problems for people.

We also have to make sure that light switches, door handles and panels for lifts should be within reach, and should have proper signage. All these need to be featured in the buildings.

What are some of the challenges associated with incorporating universal design in buildings?

I would say that the biggest challenge is that since most builders are not sensitized towards this universal design concept, we actually have to train them—to make them see why universal design is necessary, while we are actually doing it.

Making a space fully accessible often requires taking away space from the sell-able area—for example, introducing a handicapped toilet, which is bigger and more costly than just having a normal ladies and gents facility. People don’t always like that because it’s more costly, but they have to do it, because they don’t realize what percentage of the population which will be visiting those places would require assistance.

What are some of the most exciting innovations that you’ve seen in terms of universal design?

A while back, I saw a wheelchair which enables a person to manoeuvre it (with) his chin. Recently, I also saw a car that is designed so well that a person without two arms or two legs can drive it. We have been working on a design for a walking stick connected to a GPS (global positioning system) device to help with directions to your destination. It will have voice messages on where to turn left and right. We haven’t built it yet because we haven’t had the time. But it’s something that’s in process.

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