February 8, 2008
  Designing to Accommodate Everyone
Universally designed building awarded for socially responsible housing

by Heather Livingston
Contributing Editor

How do you . . . design an apartment building that meets the needs of people of all ages and abilities, without the need for extensive adaptation or specialization?

Summary: Universal design is not about following the minimum ADA guidelines, and it’s not about specialization. It’s about providing access to all, whether they are severely arthritic, wheelchair users, or seven feet tall. The 6 North apartment building in St. Louis is the first large-scale multi-family housing development project to incorporate the principles of universal design throughout its spaces. At 6 North, all 80 apartments, as well as the common spaces and fitness facility, are fully accessible by all, including those with disabilities. The project was recently awarded the John M. Clancy Award for Socially Responsible Housing. The award was established in 2004 by the principals of Goody Clancy to recognize and honor the decades of creative commitment that John Clancy, FAIA, brought to the planning, design, and construction of multifamily housing for the diverse populations of our nation at all income levels.

Setting the foundation
The desire to create a universally designed apartment building stemmed from Max and Colleen Starkloff, founders of the St. Louis-based disability advocacy nonprofit Paraquad, says Greg Zipfel, AIA, senior architect and director of the Health and Wellness Studio at Trivers Associates. According to Zipfel, the Starkloffs owned an apartment building that was primarily for disabled persons. However, the building was showing signs of structural deficiency, and they determined that it needed to be replaced. The Starkloffs approached developer McCormack Baron Salazar and Trivers Associates to create a universal design, barrier-free apartment building.

According to the Center for Universal Design, founder Ron Mace defined universal design as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” Adds Zipfel, universal design is “about thinking about the environment and how you can design something that can accommodate people, rather than people accommodating to their environment.”

Common sense, not code
The principles of universal design recommend, not dictate, common sense approaches to barrier issues. To create an environment that can easily accommodate all people, the design team looked hard at the placement of every fixture, door knob, and appliance. For instance, Zipfel illustrates that, in most homes, the dishwasher sits adjacent to the sink and directly on the floor. At that level, the dishwasher’s bottom shelf can be hard to reach for those who are very tall or who have difficulty bending over. The principles of universal design suggest placing the dishwasher 12 inches off the floor so that the bottom drawer is easily reached by all.

Another recommendation set forth by the Center for Universal Design is variable counter heights. It doesn’t require a particular set of heights, as a code would, but instead simply suggests that the countertops be placed at different levels to accommodate those from the very small to the very tall. To achieve this outcome, Trivers installed an island in each apartment kitchen with an end on a pedestal base that can be lowered to 27 inches and raised to 44 inches.

Zipfel also points out that the placement of electrical boxes at 12 inches off the floor is not code directed, but rather an arbitrary measurement. According to Zipfel, the common height instead has much to do with the height of the electrician’s hammer. Rather than rely on a tape measure to plot the height of electrical outlets, electricians have historically used their hammer as a standard of measure. Why not, asks Zipfel, instead locate the outlet boxes at 18 inches, where persons with limited mobility can reach them more easily? At 6 North, they are.

Other universal design features in the building include roll-in showers, five-foot turning radii in all rooms, front-loading washers and dryers, and roll-out shelves. Finally, the architect used abundant daylighting coupled with contrasting colors at plane intersections to aid in visual acuity. At all intersecting planes, the color change was made sharp enough so that persons with poor vision can more easily navigate the building without assistance.

At 6 North
The three-story apartment building sits on a corner lot in St. Louis’s Central West End, a light industrial neighborhood with a mix of some historic brick homes. The site itself sits on the former location of a long-operating farmer’s market. According to Zipfel, the previous building was in disrepair and had little architectural interest to render it salvageable for reuse, but they were able to save a metal shed where the farmers would pull up their trucks to sell produce. Although the structure doesn’t tie into the universal design aspect of the project, it did serve as a unifying element and neighborhood landmark.

An additional neighborhood tie-in was the incorporation of three live/work apartments on the street level. Giving a new twist to the traditional Mom & Pop storefront with living quarters above, the live/work apartments at 6 North feature the storefront on the street side of the building, with the living quarters behind.

Zipfel says that the experience of creating a wholly universal-design building was a liberating journey and an exciting opportunity to think creatively and flexibly about how to design spaces that are comfortable, attractive, and easily used by all. “I think the beauty of universal design is in its simplicity,” says Zipfel. “If you keep your ideas consistent and simple, and you respond to the challenges that universal design offers, you can create a pretty successful building that responds to everybody’s need. I think that really gets at the heart of what universal design is about.


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For more information on the principles of universal design, visit the Center for Universal Design Web site.

Learn more about the John M. Clancy Award for Socially Responsible Housing.

Visit the AIA’s Housing and Custom Residential Committee online.

1. Photo © Sam Fentress.
2. Photo © Sam Fentress.
3. Photo © Alise O’Brien.
4. Photo © Alise O’Brien.
5. Photo © Alise O’Brien.