Announced as the biggest urban planning initiative in Halifax history, the city’s upcoming Cogswell District plans to transform 6.5 hectares into a vibrant mixed-use neighbourhood (shown above in an early conceptual rendering). With the help of Kristen Habermehl, principal of Atlantic Accessibility Consulting, the area is also striving to become North America’s first community to achieve gold-level certification under the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification (RHFAC) program.
Launched by the celebrated Canadian Paralympian in 1988, the Rick Hansen Foundation advocates for a world without barriers. One of the group’s most recent tools is a rating system introduced in 2017 to evaluate a project’s level of access from the perspective of people with a wide range of abilities. We spoke to Habermehl — who also oversaw the accessible design of the new Peggy’s Cove viewing platform — about how to prioritize holistic user experiences.
For a recent commercial building, I was brought in as plans were nearing completion. The client wanted services for people of all abilities, but the counters were all placed at a height of 915 millimetres, instead of including a combination of raised and lowered counters. Changes like that can be avoided if an accessibility consultant is part of the team from the beginning.
Hard surfaces such as polished concrete are a common choice for indoor spaces — and a relief for people approaching in a wheeled mobility device — but for someone who uses hearing aids, those same surfaces lack sound damping. By utilizing tried-and-true principles of universal design, we can implement solutions that work for a larger majority of people.
Not one architect coming through the Rick Hansen Foundation training has said, “Oh, I knew all this.” It can be as simple as determining the proper number of accessible parking spaces required. If it’s a retirement facility or a community centre, it will need more spots. Each location requires specific consideration.
People think that a project is accessible if they check off a list of criteria, but it’s just not true. One of the most common mistakes people make is putting automated paper towel dispensers on the other side of the washroom, which means that someone using a wheeled mobility device has to roll across the floor with wet hands on their wheels.
So many people who use wheeled mobility devices have to call ahead to ask questions about the washrooms before they go somewhere. That should not be the norm! An aging population will only increase the demand in the years to come, but those already living with disabilities need the changes now — and have been ignored for far too long.
For the accessibility consultant in charge of Halifax’s upcoming Cogswell district, universal design is about much more than ramps and grab bars.