Access Living: Broadening Awareness and
Value in Inclusive Design

On 5th March 2007, Access Living opened doors to its new headquarters in Chicago, one of the first office buildings to incorporate inclusive design in conjunction with green design. Thinking beyond a conventional office template, this four-story LEED Gold Certified building was designed with a user-centered approach to enhance every individual's productivity and well-being. It was, after all, built for Access Living, an organization with a mission to promote independent living and foster dignity, pride, and self-esteem in people with disabilities. They needed an office space for their staff and clientele, including people with a wide array of abilities and capacities. An inclusive office design was the vision, and it quickly became an especially important project to LCM.

LCM's dedication to accessibility and local knowledge put us at the forefront to realize our client's ambitions. Accessibility focuses on specific physical or cognitive disabilities, but it may leave out large sections of people who don't have a defined, legally recognized disability. On the other hand, inclusive design is a set of general principles to create conditions of desirable human-environment interaction.

One of the building's greatest legacies is its success in broadening awareness and recognition of universal design and the value in growing a more inclusive society.
Marca Bristo, the late founding president and CEO of Access Living
Inclusive design steps away from preconceived notions of "typical" users and accounts for the differing ways in which people move through, perceive, or react to the environment. Most commercial office buildings tend to be built around standard templates with assumptions about "average" users. As we embarked on this innovative journey, there were no official standards and few precedents to follow.

In April 2004, LCM facilitated a design symposium that included Access Living staff, consumers, design professionals, and specialists in disability from the U.S. Access Board and other professional organizations. The group represented the voices of diverse users, capturing the needs of people with noticeable and also invisible disabilities. 

We began by meeting with people with many kinds of disabilities to identify the challenges each faces when using commercial buildings, then worked to address these challenges creatively and cost-effectively. We wanted our end result to make a bold statement about the possibilities of inclusive and socially sustainable design.
John Catlin, FAIA, and Richard Lehner, AIA, LEED AP, Partners at LCM Architects.
The four-story headquarters building on Chicago Avenue is sensitive to its surrounding urban neighborhood in terms of scale, materials, and massing. The most notable innovations are on the interior. Inclusive design often lies in the details that are not apparent on the first look but evident in the experience. Here are some examples of inclusive design principles that were put into practice:

Equitable Use

Everyone can approach and enter the building in the same way, through the main entrance. There is no ramp, lift, or separate entrance, and no need to call for assistance.

Flexibility in Use

Lounge area with cabinets and surface counters at different heights, reception area with different kinds of chairs, meeting rooms with or without daylight. The spaces offer various choices to cover a wide range of abilities and preferences. 

Simple and Intuitive

The space allows easy and intuitive use regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or concentration level. Color helps orient people to different functions, with accent walls in the elevator lobby and a different paint color for toilet rooms. The elevators have unique features like dual exit and entry points, visual and audio signals for floors, and a TTY emergency call system for deaf people.   

Perceptible Information

The path of travel from the sidewalk to the entrance, reception desk, corridors, and elevators is marked with both visual and tactile cues. Contrasting carpet colors in the lobby and corridors act as way-finding markers. 

Tolerance for Errors

Good visibility around office corners with vision panels will prevent abrupt encounters, especially for wheelchair users. The design of curved corners requires less precise maneuvering for wheelchair use and walking difficulty. 

Low Physical Effort

Bathroom sensors, automatic shades, non-skid floor coverings reduce physical effort. Sufficient elevator capacity reduces waiting times.  

Size and Space for Approach and Use

Even on a tight urban site, the design provides ample space for all users to move, irrespective of body size, posture, or mobility.

Inclusive design is invisible in the same way that many disabilities are invisible. Seamless interaction between a person and their environment is the best indication of its success. Inclusive design incorporates accessibility without attracting attention, enabling all people, with or without disabilities, to use a space equally in the same intuitive way. Independence from assistance is a powerful path to the dignified human experience many people with disabilities are often denied. 

The second goal to build an environmentally sustainable building brought the opportunity to explore the intersections between universal and green design. Automatic controls throughout the building in shading, lighting, faucets, or toilets save energy and water and require minimal effort for a wide range of people. The use of materials like low VOC paint reduces the release of toxins in the air. Carpets made of recycled content that trap impurities help achieve better air quality for breathing, putting less strain on the filtration systems. Modular furniture and walls offer greater flexibility of use, reducing landfill waste when changes are made. The green roof makes for a refreshing, flexible outdoor space for hanging out. 

Every aspect of this building has been reconsidered from the perspective of universal design, as well as how each will relate to the sustainable design elements.
Jack Catlin, FAIA, Partner at LCM Architects 
The interactive, user-centered design process initiated by the symposium brought several insights and created a body of knowledge that has informed LCM’s subsequent projects. Among these are: the Philip J. Rock Center and School, the only public school in the country providing services exclusively to deaf-blind children and youth; Chez Veterans Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a facility providing independent living and academic support for student veterans; and the Center for Enriched Living, a community center for people with developmental and physical disabilities.

The Access Living headquarters received awards for its design and, until recently, would conduct 50+ tours per year to educate students, designers, and disability groups about the power and practicality of universal design. More than a decade later, this design experiment continues to challenge the conventions of office design and improve the workspace environment for people of all abilities.

Team Space full scale
Access Living is making a statement about the future of our city with this building – that it can be inclusive and accessible for all.
JChicago Mayor Richard M. Daley at the August 2005 Groundbreaking.
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