Key Learnings from the First Virtual Universal Design Summit

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Over 160 architects, interior designers, developers, remodelers, occupational therapists and housing advocates gathered Sept. 29-Oct. 1 for Universal Design Summit 7. Unlike previous UD summits, this year’s event was held virtually in an effort to guarantee the health and safety of all attendees.

As North America’s premier conference on Universal Design, the summit showcases the homes and public spaces that best exemplify the principles of Universal Design. Additionally, industry professionals share the design strategies and innovations that shape these examples of inclusive architecture.

The UD Summit is typically a very hands-on event with facility tours and design-oriented activities, so the decision to go virtual was not an easy one. But SDI Event Coordinator Lisa Roberts and the rest of the UDS7 Steering Committee worked tirelessly to make this year’s conference as informative and interactive as ever.

“We knew that it wasn’t going to look the same as it had in previous years, but we never doubted that it would happen,” Lisa said. “We had regular planning meetings that took place virtually for over a year-and-a-half to make sure everything would come off smoothly.”

Universal Design is a design philosophy whereby the built environment and every product in it can be used, accessed and understood by everyone to the greatest extent possible, regardless of age, size, ability or disability. It goes beyond basic ADA compliance to create physical and digital spaces that are modern, attractive and equally welcoming to all people. Over the three-day conference, 35 presenters shared their thoughts on the importance of Universal Design and how its implementation can improve quality of life in a multitude of ways.

Examples of Universal Design are on full display right here in St. Louis. Jerry Kerr, a veteran of the local home-building industry, explained to the UDS 7 audience how he became fascinated with so-called blue zones, parts of the world where life expectancy is greatest. After extensive research, Kerr realized that multigenerational living and close social connection were the primary characteristics these blue zones share. To Kerr, this recipe for longevity was missing one crucial element, Universal Design.

So Kerr’s organization, Disability Rights Advocates for Technology (DRAFT), began construction at 9147 Clayton Road, a stunning, three-story residence where luxury and practicality converge to offer the ultimate in universally designed, multigenerational living. The house features an elevator, wide hallways, adjustable kitchen counters and removable cabinets to accommodate seated cooks, accessible bathrooms and showers with digital controls and adjustable fixtures.

Tours of 9147 Clayton Road can be requested at 9147clayton.com. Pete Uetrecht, owner of Compass Design Build and member of the UDS7 Steering Committee, made multiple visits to the property. As an experienced homebuilder who implements elements of Universal Design in every project, Pete came away amazed.

“There was an automated system in the master closet that allowed you to raise and lower an entire shelving unit with the push of a button. It was pretty impressive,” Pete remarked. “But the biggest thing that struck me was that Jerry didn’t just incorporate Universal Design on the first floor. It was consistent throughout all three levels, which is unique.”

The impact of Universal Design extends to outdoor spaces as well. Clarence Olsen, Architect at Cohen Hilberry Architects and UDS7 Steering Committee member, gave a presentation on the unifying potential of neighborhood parks. He described how one local park incorporates Universal Design to create an oasis of safety, comfort and recreation amid the city bustle.

“Taylor Park provides a nice reprieve from the busy streetscape of Lindell. There is zero threshold, so you can come and go without any barriers, and lush hedges around the perimeter offer attractive vertical landscaping,” Clarence explained. “Built-in tables and benches provide roll-under space for wheelchairs, walkers or strollers. They also arranged paving stones into a sort of maze where kids can play hide-and-seek. It really adds to the park’s character and sense of place.”

St. Louis landmarks like the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum and Gateway Arch Museum have also been masterfully renovated according to the principles of Universal Design, offering a far more complete and rewarding experience for guests. With the proposed Major League Soccer stadium and many other exciting development projects underway, Olsen hopes that events like the Universal Design Summit will inspire architects and designers to take an inclusive approach.

“It’s definitely worth keeping Universal Design on the front burner of people’s minds as they engineer these spaces, especially these large-scale public projects,” Clarence observed. “If people would share some of the design philosophies from the summit, I think it would make a big difference.”

Summit organizers used Socio, an event-hosting application, to make all presentations and resources available in one easily accessible platform. Attendees will continue to have access to all conference materials through the end of November.

With participants attending from their homes and offices all across the country, and presenters sharing their expertise from as far away as Spain, the new format dramatically extended the summit’s reach and proved beneficial on a number of levels.

“There isn’t much I would change for the future. We hope it will take place in person again, but with all the virtual options and the connections they create, hosting it virtually really seemed to have its advantages,” Lisa concluded. “It meant everything to have the support of SDI staff and the steering committee. Everyone spent countless hours on the summit, contributing to its success.”

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