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TOTO-Sponsored Trip Shows AIA Members Research Frontier of Universal Design

By Zach Mortice

Associate Editor

A diverse group of 17 AIA members recently returned from a trip to TOTO’s Universal Design Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology in Tokyo where they studied the world’s only design facility that focuses on creating products that the most diverse array of people can use, regardless of age, health, and physical or mental capacity. This group (consisting of architects from across the nation, from a wide range of career stages and levels of expertise in universal design) spent four days in Japan, learning from a culture that has made demographically-pushed strides in universal design. Universal design is the aspiration that all products and built environments are as easy to use as possible for all groups of people, regardless of limitations on physical capacity, mental capacity, or ability. Japan has long been a leader in this field of research, as nearly a quarter of its totally population is elderly and the average life expectancy for women is 86 years. TOTO defines universal design through five simple principles: minimal physical exertion, simple and intuitive use, adaptability, comfort, and safety.

Led by TOTO, the Japanese plumbing products manufacturer and AIA strategic partner, these architects toured the research center, attended universal design tradeshows and showrooms, and stopped by other Tokyo architectural landmarks. Along the way, they contrasted how accessibility issues are handled differently in the United States, and made connections between universal design and sustainability.

The way accessibility concerns are regulated in the United States (usually through the ADA) offers simple, specific, and prescriptive solutions that often lead to institutional-looking and feeling places, says Anne Schopf, FAIA, of Mahlum in Seattle, but TOTO’s research-based approach offers a more creative and open-ended way to deal with these design constraints. “Constraints always define our problem more clearly,” she says. “It elevates our design and it doesn’t have to be institutional.” Rarely, she says, do ADA regulations do anything more nuanced than offer a single catch-all solution for an accessibility challenge. “It just says, ‘Put a handrail here,’” Schopf says.

“[TOTO] believes in finding out what’s the design problem, rather than what’s the required need,” says Sean Stadler, AIA, of WDG Architecture’s Washington office, who also visited the TOTO research center. As an example of this, several attendees mentioned a shelf that acts as a cleverly disguised (and less institutional looking) toilet handrail for disabled persons.

The trip attendees (whose trip ended on Oct. 2) didn’t just focus on accessibility and universal design in terms of elderly or disabled people. These issues also involved mothers with strollers, pregnant women, and individuals with reduced mental capacities like dementia. Perhaps the most important lesson they learned about universal design is its attempt to create environments that are as easy as possible to use from birth to death—an aspiration Japanese designers are perhaps more familiar with than Americans, as multi-generational extended families living together are very common there. “When you talk about universal design, it goes way beyond just looking at kitchens and bathrooms,” says Stadler, the 2010 Young Architects Forum chair. “[It gets into], how do we use public buildings in general, and how do we design buildings to accommodate everybody’s needs?”

This concept itself can be a sustainability principle. There are economic sustainability arguments for the greater ROI universally designed products and environments can earn due to a wider customer base, but Stadler says universal design is “really about sustaining society.” Clearly, no building could be considered sustainable (no matter what it’s made of or how it performs) if it isn’t even useable by a significant portion of its intended users.

“Both sustainable design and universal design are just components of good design,” says Randall Hamerly, AIA, an architect from Highland, Calif., whose firm often works on aging-in-place custom residential projects. The TOTO trip prompted him to ask, “Why do we have to give them a special little niche?”

Sean Vance, AIA, is the former director of the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. He noticed how advanced TOTO’s research process was, and how this allowed them to scientifically determine the best accessibility design solutions. It’s probably no surprise that companies manufacturing bathroom and plumbing equipment have been shy to ask how exactly their customers use their products, but TOTO’s research labs feature mock-up bathroom and kitchen spaces that can have all their dimensions and spacing adjusted instantly. By working with and observing how people use their products, TOTO can make more informed, performance-based decisions on what works and what doesn’t. “As a process, that’s something that we could learn from,” says Vance, who is now an architecture professor at the University of Michigan. “That’s the ability to go back and study what we’re already created.”

The drive to go beyond prescriptive guesses and look for actual performance data goes past universal design alone. Architects can use performance data like this to evaluate the performance of sustainable buildings, and in the wider world of evidence-based design, where every design decision must be backed by quantifiable data. “We’ve said that as architects, we have to go back and do the post-occupancy evaluation, but nobody knows how to do the post-occupancy evaluation,” Vance says. “I think that TOTO has an example that we can learn from about how to constantly be re-evaluating what we’re designing to make it better.”


Seventeen AIA members visited the TOTO research center. (List of architect attendees below). All images courtesy of TOTO.

In 2002, the company formally established its Universal Design Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology and simultaneously developed a network of more than 280 people of varying ages and physical abilities from inside and outside the company to test its products on an ongoing basis.

Wearing an age simulation Suit, a product engineer at TOTO’s Universal Design Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology learns firsthand the difficulty a physically challenged person has getting out of the tub.

To provide products that are free from inconvenience or discomfort and offer ease of use, safety, and comfort to everyone, researchers at the Universal Design Research Center study people as they interact with its products using a variety of methods such as video monitoring, anthropometric studies, and straight observation with simultaneous interviews.


Recent Related:

Universal Design Living Laboratory Seeks to Break Barriers

Designing to Accommodate Everyone

Upper-End Kitchen and Bath Features Fall Victim to Housing Downturn

Accessibility Awareness Exercise Gives Architects a New Perspective

Doer’s Profile: Chris Downey

School Addition to Benefit Deaf-Blind and Autistic Students

Evidence-Based Design: The Deeper Meaning to Sustainability, Building Performance, and Everything Else


Seventeen AIA members visited the TOTO research center. Pictured above (not in order): 2011 AIA President Clark Manus, FAIA, James M. Warner, FAIA, Mitchell Levy, Assoc. AIA, Karen Harris, AIA, Josh Safdie, Sean Stadler, AIA, Emory Baldwin, AIA, Victor Regnier, FAIA, Sean Vance, AIA, Stefani Danes, AIA, Anne Schopf, FAIA, Jon Sanford, William Leddy, FAIA, Lee A. Hill, AIA, Gina Hilberry, AIA, Randall Hamerly, AIA, Ingrid L. Fraley, AIA

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