Practical application of universal design

A universal design perspective can help provide a better and more usable environment for everyone using a public building.

Aims of universal design

Universal design of the built environment starts with four overarching aims:

  1. Everyone should be included, irrespective of their individual capability, knowledge, skill level, race, religion, gender, age or size.
  2. Everywhere  should be physically accessible – to everyone and achievable in an easy, safe, independent and convenient way.
  3. Everything should be equally accessible, understandable and usable by everyone everywhere.
  4. Every solution  should seek to accommodate the needs of everyone, while not excluding or segregating anybody.

While it will never be possible to achieve all these aims all of the time, they should be used to guide decision-making processes from the very start of the project through the design, construction and occupation phases.  


A structured approach helps ensure the right decisions are made when addressing site issues or other restrictions that have an impact. When evaluating alternatives, consider the following priorities:

  1. For each requirement, incorporate a standard feature that will enable as many people as possible to independently achieve the desired end result.
  2. If that is not possible, provide an equivalent alternative.
  3. If an equivalent alternative is not feasible, make specific adaptions.
  4. If nothing can be done to improve the situation, or some building users are excluded by any decision, address the impact of any resultant shortcomings.

Example: Building entrance

When considering the entrance to a building:

  1. Match the internal floor level with the external ground level. This is a standard feature that will enable everyone to use the same entrance.
  2. Where this is not possible, provide an equivalent alternative level entrance. This will enable everyone to go in and out through a different but equal entrance. (Consider if the internal layout could be adapted to make this the main entrance).
  3. Where this is not possible, provide steps and a low gradient ramped approach. 
  4. If no effective alteration works are possible, organise a permanent management solution so that the service provided in the building can be obtained elsewhere.

Accommodating everyone

No building or feature will suit everyone and there will always be some building users that are not able to adapt to even the best of designs. However, by considering the needs of everyone from the concept design stage, as many people as possible will be able to use the building independently. 

It may not always be possible to incorporate all the needs of one group without excluding some of the needs of another and compromises may be necessary.

For instance, for someone who is blind or has low vision, full height kerbs are important as they are the single most reliable cue in detecting the edge of the pathway and the location of roads. However, for someone using a wheelchair or a walking device, a kerb represents a barrier that prevents them from crossing safely.

While installing a dropped kerb will allow people using mobility equipment to transfer from the pavement to the road to cross, the lack of a full kerb upstand poses a risk for people who are blind or have low vision who may walk out into the road unknowingly.

To alert people to this danger, tactile ground surface indicators are sometimes installed. However, some people may find the colour visually offensive and others, perhaps with tender feet or pushing a stroller with a sleeping baby in it, may object. In this situation not every need is able to be met.

When conflicting needs are unavoidable, or alternative options are being evaluated, the following factors should be considered:

  • Safety
  • Effectiveness
  • Cost


The most important influence when evaluating alternative approaches is to ensure the safety of the building user, whatever their personal capabilities. In priority order this can be achieved by:

  • Removing or not installing the element which can cause the hazard.
  • Changing the element to remove or reduce the danger to an acceptable level.
  • Physically protecting the building user from coming into contact with the element.
  •  Warning the building user of the hazard. This needs to be achieved in sufficient time to allow the information to be registered and acted upon.

Example: Staircase

Staircases are the biggest source of accidents within the built environment. To ensure the safety of building users consider the following:

Remove or not install: Ensure there are no unnecessary changes of level in new or altered buildings. This affects site layout and building design but will save internal space due to the absence of stairs or ramps.

Change: Orientate a new staircase at right angles to, or locate it away from, the general path of travel. This reduces the possibility that a distracted person or someone who is blind or has low vision will come across a staircase unexpectedly.

Protect: Place the staircase in an enclosure. This ensures that a positive action of having to go through doors and perhaps into a contrasting aural environment needs to be taken.

Alert: Install tactile ground surface indicators on the approach to the stairs. This will alert people who are blind or have low vision as long as the warnings are placed in the correct positon.


When the safety of building users has been addressed, the ease with which they can use the built environment needs to be considered. While residential properties can be designed to meet a specific user’s requirements, public buildings have to meet the needs of the population as a whole. This invariably means some form of compromise. Some potential building users may be excluded and others may find adapting to the design difficult.

Acceptable Solutions in the Building Code provide some minimum disability-related requirements such as the clear opening widths for doors. This width may be suitable for the passage of manual wheelchairs but not for use by parents with double buggies.

In order to identify design standards that will adequately cater for the needs of everyone, research is required by the design team. This might take the form of findings from similar projects, research available from within New Zealand or an analysis of international standards. While a review of the requirements of proposed users should form a basis for the design, this may not be from a representative sample of the population as a whole. In addition, allowance should be made for future changes in demographics including those relating to tourists and immigrants.

The selection of base-line criteria for a design will invariably result in some building users experiencing difficulty in adjusting to the built environment and others feeling excluded. The procedure at this point is to identify if the solution could be amended to make their use easier and how the needs of those who are excluded or who find the process unreasonably difficult will be addressed.


There is a cost associated with any work to the built environment. With a universal design approach to design it is quite possible that cost savings could be made. For instance, the specific positioning of a building on a site might incur some additional civil costs to make the pedestrian approaches acceptable, but result in savings as entrance steps and compliant ramps are no longer required. Some internal doors and door closers could also be omitted.

When looking for cost savings it is worth considering that future structural changes are much more difficult and costly than those to fabric, fixtures and fittings. Building users effectively have the following priorities:

  • Getting into the building.
  • Getting out of the building in an emergency.
  • Moving round the inside of the building.
  • Making use of the facilities within the building.

Any increase in cost is unlikely to match the significant increase in value perceived by those who use the building. As it becomes more commonplace and its benefits more visible, it is likely that universally designed property will become the gold standard for public buildings.

Asking questions

The gathering of the right information is crucial to the successful completion of a project and its eventual occupation. While all of the parties involved will do this by asking questions, with a universal design approach those questions need to be guided by the four Aims of Universal Design. Some typical starting questions might be:


  • How should site selection criteria and marketing be modified to maximise the benefits of a universal design approach?
  • Will more civil works be required to provide acceptable pedestrian access and how will this affect the overall budget?
  • How will this impact on the position of the building?
  • Is level access possible to more than one floor of the building?
  • How can the design team be selected and briefed to ensure the completed development meets the needs of all building users?

Owners and occupiers:

  • Who should be involved in undertaking a pre-purchase or pre-lease inspection to ensure the building and site will meet the needs of everyone?
  • Should works to address a shortfall in accessibility and usability be costed prior to negotiations with the current owner or developer?
  • How will the current design of the building impact on its use now and in the future?
  • How are the expectations of building users changing and will this affect the value of the investment?
  • How can alterations and improvements be approached to maximize potential benefits? 
  • Who should be approached to design alterations and improvement works to ensure all building users are considered?


  • Does the client understand the advantages of a universally designed building?
  • Can a site design be developed that improves pedestrian circulation and makes use of the building easier?
  • Can changes in level be minimised to reduce the need for stairs and ramps?
  • How can conflicting needs of building users be addressed?
  • What can be done to ensure that consultants, contractors and sub-contractors understand the approach and make their own contribution?

Facility/building managers:

  • How can cleaning, alterations, repairs or redecoration be undertaken so as to not impact on the use and safety of the building e.g. floor slip resistance?
  • Can colour schemes be improved to assist in the identification of critical surfaces for people with low vision? 
  • When building fixtures or fittings are damaged, what should be considered when replacements are needed?
  • How can furniture be better laid out to improve circulation and usability?
  • How can running and maintenance costs be reduced without affecting the usability of the building?
  • How will information be gathered from building users about the performance of the property and the elements in it?

This information is published by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Chief Executive. It is a general guide only and, if used, does not relieve any person of the obligation to consider any matter to which the information relates according to the circumstances of the particular case. Expert advice may be required in specific circumstances. Where this information relates to assisting people: