Accessible construction plays an important role in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Exclusionary solutions are not accepted. Instead, there are requirements for aesthetics and simultaneous functionality and self-determination. Yet they have only made their way into construction practices in a limited fashion.
Ulrike Jocham is the owner of the business consultant firm inklusiv wohnen/inklusiv leben (in English: Inclusive Living) from Stuttgart, Germany. She launched the public information campaign Zero Barriers and Usability in Architecture, which provides information about interdisciplinary tasks and already existing solutions. REHACARE.de spoke with her about negative and positive examples of implementation in accessible construction.
Mrs. Jocham, you are a trained disability support worker and hold a master’s degree in architecture. Quite an unusual combination. In what way can you bring this experience into your work?
So-called "accessible" construction calls upon many professions, such as experts from the areas of care service, educational science, medicine, social work, design, product development, architecture, urban development, skilled trades, building regulation, norm and guideline development, building experts, building legislation, social law and research or social research, respectively, as well as experts in their own right for instance. I believe sustainable developments and solutions for so-called "accessible" construction need to follow a transdisciplinary approach. So far, this is too rarely the case. My two primary qualifications along with my cross-disciplinary continuing education and professional experience enable me to build bridges between the many professions that are often still strangers to each other, to promote an understanding of tasks outside of one’s subject area, to uncover errors in reasoning, to bridge cross-disciplinary knowledge gaps or help in interpreting the different "disciplinary languages". My knowledge which goes beyond traditional "accessible" construction promotes solutions that address demographic change for example, empowering construction, equal choices for participation and selection for people, who are or aren’t in need of care and/or assistance as well as developing renewable options for residing, learning, working and living in society.
Why do you talk about "so-called accessible" construction?
Contrary to the aims of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the focus of "accessible" construction is unfortunately far too often on the shortcomings. Yet the CRPD demands a universal design without discriminating adaptations as well as the largest extent of self-determination and autonomy possible for all people. What’s needed in my opinion is a corresponding interior design that promotes the skills of people and let’s them unfold their potential: empowering architectural design that reflects the demographic changes, doesn’t exclude anyone for no reason, but let’s inclusion become a reality instead. I can illustrate my concerns about "accessible" living accommodations in the various state building codes (SBCs) here in Germany. The SBCs only demand a very small percentage of "accessible" special accommodations, which are never able to meet the demands caused by the demographic changes in my point of view. Even real estate associations worry about an extreme housing shortage for older adults. I think we need building legislation that exclusively and fundamentally stipulates accessible, user-friendly, age-appropriate and inclusive new apartments with the proven and tested minimum standard.
How sensible do you deem the DIN standards, for instance the standard DIN 18040 for accessible construction?
According to the German Federal Court of justice (in German: Bundesgerichtshof, BGH), DIN standards are "not legal norms, but merely private technical regulations with recommendation status", which may also be obsolete (BGH Verdict VII ZR 45/06). Empirically, they are far too often taken at face value without critical analysis; and not just by the construction industry.
The CRPD on the other hand initiates an exciting optimization of all DIN standards. It demands their adaptation, so universal design can be implemented. In my opinion, this is exactly what needs to happen with all DIN standards that prevent accessibility in buildings. Even the new standard DIN 18040 for accessible construction lacks clarity and consistency in my eyes when it comes to potential accessible doors and showers. Yet these design requirements are precisely the prerequisite for the newly requested diversity management in architecture due to the demographic changes and inclusion. Presently, even in new care facilities, two-centimeter thresholds on French windows and patio doors are still standard, even though the German invention of accessible magnetic double seals has already demonstrated for more than 15 years that new housing developments can be built without excluding barriers and the risks of stumbling and falling. Incidentally, these countless thresholds (in just one assisted housing complex they quickly add up to 80 pieces for example) can be removed again and all the door wings renewed at the expense of our social security funds. Sustainable solutions don’t look like this.
What role do usability and aesthetics play in terms of accessibility?
According to designer and architect Dieter Rams, aside from several other aspects, both of these design objectives, usability and aesthetics, are a part of good design. When it comes to traditional accessible construction, I believe usability and aesthetics as well as the basic goal of great design are still too often being neglected. Especially, specialized facilities such as nursing homes and special rooms like so-called "disability bathrooms" for example are unfortunately often reminders of care needs, illness and old age and are therefore discriminating just by their appearance alone and compromise the "image" of so-called accessible construction. I believe great design in architecture through diversity management, inclusion and empowerment for all is key!
This is an inclusive housing design concept that was jointly developed with the Bielefeld Non-Profit Housing Association (in German: Bielefelder Gemeinnützige Wohnungsgesellschaft mbH) and the Bielefeld Association for Young and Old People (in German: Verein Alt und Jung e.V., BGW). I was very fortunate to have met and gotten to know both founders, Werner Stede from the BGW and Theresia Brechmann from Alt und Jung e.V., and obtained a wide range of information about the model over the years. This exemplary living concept implements inclusion in residential accommodations even for people, who require 24-hour medical care and assistance, like older people with the highest care level and persons with so-called severe multiple disabilities for instance. In the Bielefeld model, the elderly can remain in their own apartments and people with disabilities can live on their own in apartments that are at least 45 square meters in size – an essential housing alternative, since the CRPD stipulates that everyone is meant to decide on their own how, where and with whom they would like to live. The exemplary universal design of the Bielefeld model in terms of its architecture, care and assistance services creates exciting synergy effects, such as care supportive services around the clock in the individual residential projects at no additional costs for example, which results in significant potential savings. Bielefeld has shown that inclusive housing is possible.