Let’s have buildings that are friendly to all users

Wednesday December 13 2017

Charles Mwangi, 62, waits for assistance to get downstairs after attending a court session on the second floor of the Nyeri Law Courts on December 4, 2013. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Charles Mwangi, 62, waits for assistance to get downstairs after attending a court session on the second floor of the Nyeri Law Courts on December 4, 2013. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By WILSON MANYUIRA
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While the country’s real estate sector can be said to have withstood the cash crunch that has bedevilled the global real estate industry in the recent past, its adaptation of new building technologies that seek to ensure inclusivity for all has been seriously lacking.

Mr Brian Munene, an architect with Build Design, says Kenya lags behind when it comes to buildings that are all-inclusive. “All over the world, people are now building structures that can be accessed by anyone, irrespective of their social, cultural, emotional or physical handicap. It is called universal design,” he explains.

The term “universal design” was coined by Ronald Mace, an architect who suffered polio as a child and devoted his life to creating environments suitable for all people regardless of age or condition. Universal design differs from accessible design (design that caters for the needs of people with disabilities) in one main way.

“Accessible design pays special attention to people with disabilities who have been viewed as being different from the non-disabled population, therefore, requiring buildings and products that are designed differently from those produced through the routine design process” offers Mr Munene, adding, “Universal design cares for everyone, including people with disabilities and promotes accessibility on a broader scale than the conventional approaches to accessibility.”

The building, is, therefore, designed to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design, he adds.

Ms Aliela Muyembe, an architect with Dynarch Building Systems, says universal design refers to a situation where the product or environment — in this case a building and its other supporting structures — satisfactorily meet the needs of users with diverse characteristics.

“It is where the final product ensures inclusivity so that it can be accessed and used by anyone, irrespective of their handicap, whether natural or artificial,” adds Ms Muyembe. To achieve this, a number of factors should be considered, the most important ones being the physical, social and educational characteristics of the building’s potential users.

GUIDING SIGNS

“A typical service counter, which you find in almost all offices in Kenya, is not accessible to everyone. Those who are short or who use wheelchairs, and those who cannot stand for a long time will find such a counter inhibiting, especially if they it takes a long time to serve them,” she offers.

As a result, Ms Munyembe says, applying UD principles might result in the design of a counter with multiple heights – the standard height designed for individuals of average height and who use the counter while standing and a lower height for those who are shorter than average, use a wheelchair, or prefer to interact with service staff while seated.

Meanwhile, architect Ezekiel Wafumbo notes: “A Senegalese man who is six feet tall, 30 years old, an excellent reader, primarily a visual learner, but deaf would want to access a building that takes into consideration all his characteristics while at the same time factoring in the minute needs of others.

“If this man visits your offices at Nation Centre, my guess is that he would find it hard to navigate his way around because I doubt that there are signs to guide him around —remember he is a visual learner —, and if they are any, they are most likely not in French or any other internationally known signs, apart from English. I also doubt whether the receptionists are experts in sign language,” says Mr Wafumbo, adding from an architectural point of view, such a building is seen as being disadvantageous to some potential users.

He notes that while ramps and dedicated lifts and elevators are good accessibility facilities for people with disabilities, they are mere afterthoughts and do little to solve the problem of exclusion in buildings. “Many people mistakenly assume that disability is only physical while ignoring other well-known forms,” he says.

SERVICES FOR DISABLED

According to the World Health Organisation’s 2009 statistics, 650 million people worldwide and 1.47 million Kenyans live with disabilities. Mr Munene sees their plight in the exclusion they experience in many facets of their lives, adding that this is in large part due to buildings.

“They experience some form of exclusion from basic necessities such as education, employment, health care, social services as well recreational activities, all of which are hosted by, and inside, buildings and other structures,” he offers.

And even though there has been a reduction of barriers to promote inclusion in the built environment, particularly in the developed world, Mr Munene points out, this has not happened in developing countries such as Kenya. “In the world’s affluent countries, the implementation of accessibility standards has evolved over time and they are implemented well through various types of disability systems.”

However, he notes, such systems tend to be beyond the reach of developing countries because of their limited resources, as well as inadequate monitoring and enforcement of these policies. “Cost has always been cited as the reason why universal design principles are not applied in Kenya, but I think it is high time they became a mandatory requirement for any building to be approved.”

Instructively, while the American Disabilities Act provides explicit prescription when it comes to building houses that will be accessed by the disabled, there are no corresponding legislations on the same in Kenya, and Mr Joshua Ireri, an Interior designer with Fusion Designs, explains that those who choose to be inclusive when building do so of their own volition.

More importantly, Ms Munyembe says, universal design makes buildings easier to maintain because they have fewer stairs, wider doors, fewer obstacles to circulation, more durable walking surfaces and improved lighting. Also the elimination of hazards will lead to fewer accidents.