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Can Meaningful Access Shape Design Culture?

Building accreditation programs like LEED have been successful in encouraging architects to design socially and environmentally conscious buildings. Now, a new certification program from the Rick Hansen Foundation hopes to encourage industry professionals to design buildings that prioritize accessibility.

By Erinn McKinney


January 29, 2019

Architects are vital contributors to how a city looks and feels. They design sleek residential spaces, innovative institutional buildings, and welcoming public use facilities. Compelling architecture has the ability to draw people in and convince them that a particular city is the right place to live, work and play. These designs are influenced by functionality, aesthetics and client wants and needs.

Much less considered is accessibility, or meaningful access. Architects may try to make buildings more accessible to those who have physical challenges, but often this is not effective. While accessibility standards are not mandated through legislation in Canada, a newly available certification program hopes to encourage adequate accessibility for buildings nation-wide.

Called the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification (RHFAC), this voluntary designation provides architects with accessibility recommendations for them to follow. Similar to LEED’s certification for environmental standards, the RHFAC scores buildings on a five point scale, accounting for eight different categories including: communication systems, interior circulation, emergency egress, and vehicle and exterior access. Design elements like counter height, contrasting paint colors, wayfinding, visual fire alarms, wide hallways, and aromatic entryways can all contribute to better facility ratings. Currently, RHFAC assessments focus on completed buildings, but developers can ask for a preliminary access rating should a building still be in the design stages.

After the assessment, a space can qualify for one of two certifications. A score of eighty percent or higher will give be awarded RHF Accessibility Certified Gold, and a score of 60-79% will give be rated as RHF Accessibility Certified. Buildings lower than 60% fail to qualify. Once successfully certified, building owners can then publicly reveal their designation in addition to being added to the RHFAC Registry.

So can meaningful access shape design culture? Yes, slowly but surely. Elevating this certification to the point where it can impact mainstream design culture will require the help of a few different parties: building owners, architects, and activists alike. If certified, building owners can benefit from an increased pool of potential tenants and employees. Once accessibility-friendly designs are demanded by more stakeholders at this level, the certification program will become more popular, potentially globally as well. Architects are motivated to create designs that bring people joy, make lives better, and provide proper safety. Those who see the value in this certification will help propel it forward too. Lastly, disability activists should continuing fighting for meaningful access. Within the next twenty years, one in five Canadians are expected to have a disability of some sort. With a greater percentage of disabled people than ever before, the status, passion and drive of disability activists cannot be overlooked.   

It may seem that our current design culture favours the able-bodied individual, rather than accommodating those with impairments. The Rick Hansen Foundation hopes that their accreditation program can change that. This certification is a huge leap towards making our Canadian cities and the buildings within them feel more like home for everyone.


Fotocredit: Andi Weiland | SOZIALHELDEN e.V.

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