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An approach to Inclusive Design

Posted: 13th April 2017

Ron Koorm

Retired access consultant and building surveyor

Training professionals in Inclusive Design is topical and relevant to designers, architects, surveyors and others. But what of building tradespeople? Is that relevant or even necessary? After all, most tradesmen and women have enough to be concerned about with relevant technical regulations, CDM, health and safety, changes in technology and materials, etc.

Specifications and drawings from designers tend to dictate the design of a property, or refurbishment, so where does the need for knowledge for inclusive design come in, for the trades?

We are talking of plumbers, electricians, heating engineers, carpenters, joiners, and many others too.

What many do not realize or appreciate is that probably the bulk of building and construction work is carried out without the input of an architect, building surveyor, access consultant, or professional designer. We are speaking of contractors called in to give a quotation for some minor alterations, maintenance, a small refurb job, and in commercial, industrial, education, and residential sectors.

The office manager calls in Fred, the builder, and wants a partition altered, or a doorway moved. The work may involve multiple trades, carpenters, electricians, IT installers, plumbers, floorlayers, decorators. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, the office manager adds a bit here and a bit there. Too small to get an architect involved perhaps, and anyway there are fees to be saved if the contractor just gets on with it. The contractor subcontracts the work to a range of subcontractors.

Now, consider the positioning of electrical controls, door handles, signage, light switches. The tradesperson may well ask the office manager where they want these items positioned, or they may be given carte blanche in decision-making as to heights, widths, distances, colour-contrast, and other criteria. So, will the final result be “inclusive” as regards design, or maybe partly inclusive, or downright non-inclusive?

Ah, but you say surely Building Control would step in and look over the job, and wave “Part M” and the Approved Document at the Office Manager and contractor. Sadly, not all jobs will involve building control, and even if they do, not all aspects of construction fall under Part “M”.

One electrician recently said to the writer, “That building doesn’t have to comply with any building regs, so I can put the light switches and power sockets in any height I want…”

Add the jobs that should be notified to Building Control and landlord’s managing surveyors, but aren’t; add the jobs which grow and grow, from what was just tightening a few door handles, but now involves changing several glazed partitions and suspended ceilings; add the jobs which started off as one hour’s work and now involves a team of tradespeople and a couple of weeks, and it becomes clearer why tradespeople are really quite important in the bigger picture of design and specification.

The difference between a tradesperson having some knowledge of inclusive design or none, can make the difference between a disabled person getting through an opening of an amended doorway with a wheelchair or not. Or, a person with some vision-impairment colliding with the string of a staircase because it was not well-tonally-contrasted. An access-auditor may well pick this up at some stage in the life of the building, but by then, it may be too late, as the damage may already have been done.

Speaking to an electrician, newly-qualified, he had not heard of the term ‘inclusive-design’ or understood the principles of such a term.

If the writer had not intervened in a small residential project, the light switches would have gone in too high, the RCD external power sockets would have been incorrectly positioned, and the lighting fittings would have been positioned such that deep shadows would have been cast onto work surfaces. Yet, these were ‘competent’ registered Part “P” certified electricians. (Part P refers to part of the Building Regulations -Electrical work on residential domestic property).

The electrical installation would be safe, tested, certified, but so easily the installation could have been less than satisfactory as regards heights and positioning of controls. A consumer-unit for a workshop was allowed to be installed at a slightly higher level, partly because operation of the MCB’s, (Miniature circuit breakers), and RCD, (Residual Current Device), would be relatively infrequent, and partly to avoid children accessing the unit, which might be relevant to a future owner of the property.

But there is also a case for taking the view that disabled people may, from time to time, also have to operate an MCB or RCD switch on the consumer unit, and it may be inconvenient or physically impossible for them to reach if it is positioned relatively high above a worktop. Not so critical in a garden shed, perhaps, but quite critical in the main part of a residential house or flat.

They may otherwise need to get assistance to switch the electrical power or lighting circuit back on if they cannot physically reach the unit. That may not always be convenient, or indeed, practical, particularly in more remote areas, where your nearest neighbour is a mile away. A balance needs to be struck here.

What must be done, is that trades-bodies such as NICEIC, ECA, GasSafe, and others, must ensure that their members have a basic knowledge of inclusive design, inasmuch that they understand the principles, and can apply those principles to any given situation. This enables them to discuss options on the project with a professional designer, or to convey useful knowledge relevant to the trade on inclusive design to a client or client representative, or even another tradesperson.

Whether this should be done through CPD training alone, remains to be seen. The writer feels that this is more about ‘culture-change’ and removing prejudices in the construction industry. Architects, surveyors, and designers don’t always get it right. There is considerable value in listening to what a tradesperson has to say about design, but only if they have been given the knowledge and the ‘tools’ to participate in a meaningful, and constructive way.

Some years ago there were mini-handbooks on aspects of construction, safety, and scaffolding, handed out to builders. Perhaps, what is now needed, is the equivalent handbook on practical aspects of inclusive design, perhaps specialized for each relevant trade. As we are in modern times, maybe an “App” is required, but a small handbook with simple diagrams and dimensions, of A5 size might be useful for them to refer to on site.

Make it compulsory for tradespeople to have a section in their exam syllabus on inclusive design, and how it is relevant to their particular trade or trades. But we can all dream…..

Finally, it would be worthwhile if some research were undertaken by others, to enquire of trades organisations and accredited- trade-bodies, what information or training is expected of their members on inclusive design? Do their examinations make any reference to inclusion and inclusive design, and if so, in what context?

Food for thought.

Contributor: Ron Koorm is a retired access consultant and building surveyor