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Can property rise to the accessibility challenge?

Five years ago, James Campbell was hit by a van, breaking his back and paralysing his left leg. That moment fundamentally changed his perspective of the places around him – offices, public spaces, the London Underground. Now a wheelchair user, he saw a world that often didn’t feel like it considered his needs.

Campbell is an international partner at Cushman & Wakefield working in office leasing, specialising in pre-leasing and design development. His first-hand experience has had an impact on not just his views of the built environment but also the advice he gives to those that design it.

“Landlords do, as a general rule, try to deliver a scheme that deals with accessibility, but I don’t think it goes far enough,” Campbell says. While design and design codes constantly improve, there are enough details that go unnoticed or ignored that create an environment that separates those with disabilities from their peers.

“I never want to see a platform or scissor lift in an office building again,” Campbell says. “If you’re accessing a building, you should be able to do it through the main thoroughfare, and it just needs to be designed better.

“As a wheelchair user, you don’t want to be separated from able-bodied people, and office buildings do that a lot. All these little things add up to you just not feeling as if the building or the environment was actually designed with a wheelchair user in mind. I appreciate that every decision needs to be commercially viable but I know we can do things better – most developers want to create the most inclusive environment.”

About one in five working age people in the UK have a disability, but workplaces, historically, have not been designed to cater to their needs. As conversations around ESG in real estate have gained traction, accessibility has started to rise up the agenda in the recognition that the built environment doesn’t work perfectly for (and even excludes) a significant minority of people.

The question for many is what the industry – and tech specifically – can do to make buildings more inclusive for those that do have disabilities, whether they’re visible or invisible.

Navigating physical access

Leo-Pekka Tähti

Five-time Paralympic gold medal winner Leo-Pekka Tähti is working with KONE to develop accessible tech for lifts

Global lift and escalator developer KONE recently unveiled a ‘connected wheelchair’ concept, which allows wheelchairs to connect to a building’s lifts through its API platform. Connected smart wheelchairs (or retrofitted existing wheelchairs) can alert a lift to the person’s arrival or schedule one when it’s needed.

KONE is working with five-time Finnish Paralympic gold medal winning sprinter Leo-Pekka Tähti on the concept’s development to ensure that it has practical value in making buildings easier and faster to navigate.

The idea originally came from a competition KONE ran for possible innovations connected to its products, which attracted 460 ideas. Choosing a winner from those hundreds that tries to tackle problems with accessibility reflects the importance of inclusive design for KONE.

“The idea resonated on many levels: improving people flow and quality of life, and connecting to something new,” says Maciej Kranz, chief technology officer at KONE.

“We could see there was an important problem to solve and, as a result of good ideas such as wheelchair connectivity, we will be able to build cities and buildings which are better for everyone.”

Kranz says that the connected wheelchair concept is “hopefully just the beginning” of more inclusive innovations, inviting others to co-create with KONE.

What about invisible disabilities?

Nick Phillips, development director at British Land, says the industry has made “good progress” in improving designs for those with physical disabilities, partly due to greater regulations around accessibility.

But he adds: “The area where we need to give more thought to is around those with non-visible disabilities, who don’t have physical signs, but can include learning difficulties, mental health, visual or hearing impairments, respiratory conditions and so on.”

This is a point that the government is also considering. A report from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government earlier this year found that building regulations and guidance on accessibility were “reasonable in meeting most needs of disabled people” but that they might not meet the needs of all disabled users. These include people with cognitive impairments and those with complex or multiple impairments that require the use of carers.

Phillips highlights the importance of smart technology in transforming accessibility. IoT devices scattered throughout buildings, connected to any range of building management tools, whether it’s VergeSense, Smart Spaces or HqO, allow people to customise their experience. They can adjust lighting, acoustic conditions, digital screens and other infrastructure to suit their needs.

Meanwhile, companies like Disruptive Technologies create sensors to monitor things like air quality in a building. Connected to a building management system, these and other sensors enable landlords to ensure that the air is clean and routinely recycled, benefitting everyone in the building but especially those with respiratory conditions.

Stuart Finnie, regional director of design at commercial interior designer Unispace, echoes Phillips’ thoughts: “Control is key in all of these areas, and technology allows for personalised settings and environments focused on individual needs.” He adds that while there are a range of metrics for what good, inclusive design looks like, designing well for accessibility necessarily requires integration with “invisible technology, which is harmonised within its environment”.

RightHeart app

The RightHear app in use

Some startups are taking a targeted approach, helping people with specific disabilities overcome everyday challenges. BlindSquare, for example, is a navigation system developed for blind, deafblind and partially sighted users. The app, paired with third-party navigation software, gathers information about a person’s surroundings, determines what’s most important to that person and guides them.

RightHear, a small startup in Israel, is developing a similar idea, focused on indoor spaces. Using a small sensor (an ‘Accessibility Spot’) installed inside buildings, the platform communicates with users through a mobile app, giving them relevant information about their surroundings.

Limits of regulation

The Equality Act 2010 and Part M of the Building Regulations guide accessibility standards in the UK. Broadly, these regulations require developers to make “reasonable provision” for people to gain access to and use buildings and other facilities. In theory, that should mean buildings that are either new or refurbished meet ever more stringent guidance on accessibility. The reality is more complicated.

While Part M of the Building Regulations goes into some detail around what developers need to consider – everything from specifications for ramps to walls that don’t cause discomfort to people with visual or hearing impairments – there is little to guarantee that the regulations are followed. The HCLG report from earlier this year itself highlighted that a lack of enforcement is seen as a critical issue.

Additionally, what does and doesn’t count as “reasonable provision” is not always clear given the range of buildings and disabilities that developers have to consider. The cost of introducing accessibility features into older buildings can be prohibitive, while preserving the character of historic buildings trumps the need for accessibility within Part M. In a country with as many historic buildings as the UK, that presents a serious challenge.

A developer’s responsibility

This partly explains why some businesses are taking matters into their own hands. British Land, for example, has a disability awareness employee network, enaBLe, chaired by head of procurement Ginny Warr, and is part of the Valuable 500 group, advocating for putting disability on corporate agendas.

In its development of 2 Finsbury Avenue at Broadgate in London, British Land says it estimates about 900 of the 7,000 people set to work in the building will have certain conditions that affect their lives and work, which it needs to address.

That highlights the importance, on both a social and economic level, of meeting accessibility demands. Occupiers expect buildings to deliver for their workforces’ needs, and if a building doesn’t do that, they will look somewhere else.

Richard Howard, managing partner for London & South East at Cushman & Wakefield, says: “[Accessibility] is so important: it is almost not a case of it being a priority on a list, it is more inherent in that you wouldn’t take an office that didn’t have glass in the windows, and you wouldn’t take an office – unless there are very clear and justifiable circumstances, such as a heavily listed period building – without full accessibility.”

But, as Campbell’s experience shows, simply following regulations or even delivering basic accessibility is not necessarily enough. The little things – using a side gate to get into an office or being forced onto a scissor lift when everyone else uses the front entrance – do make a difference to how included people feel in their environment even if those details technically meet regulatory standards.

What the industry needs to do is engage with users that have a variety of needs and further incorporate that lived experience into building designs and technology. As Campbell says: “Until someone actually has to deal with that disability, they don’t truly know what it’s going to be like.”

Universal Design

Developed in 1997 by North Carolina State University, the Universal Design principles are a set of guidelines for creating spaces that can be accessed and used by the greatest number of people, regardless of specific personal needs.

Principle 1: Equitable use

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. This includes providing the same means for all users, identical wherever possible.

Principle 2: Flexibility in use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

Principle 3: Simple and intuitive use

Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level

Principle 4: Perceptible information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

Principle 5: Tolerance for error

The design minimises hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions

Principle 6: Low physical effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue

Principle 7: Size and space for approach and use

Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use regardless of user’s body size, posture or mobility

You can find more on the seven principles here. A comprehensive 944-page Universal Design guide to ‘building for everyone’ is available here.

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