In times like this, when workplaces have become the focus of fear and apprehension, an inclusive design approach it’s what’s needed to transform them.
My guest is Amy Pothier, an authority on this subject combines her love of building codes with her passion for universal and inclusive design working on global projects at Gensler’s Toronto office.
Q. When we think of space design, what does inclusive design mean?
Inclusive design means designing for all people, so it intends to incorporate design solutions that meet the needs related to everything a person can be –gender identity, ability, age, socioeconomic status, culture– and trying to be considerate of how those different needs interact.
Q. You design workspaces and living spaces at Gensler. How do you help organizations?
My role is to recognize how the built environment plays a part in removing or reducing barriers. It’s always very hard to define what inclusion is, but when you start talking about who’s excluded from the space, that’s what we want to avoid. We work to make sure the environment is created to reduce exclusion and promote flexibility in who can use that space and feel comfortable using that space. My role then is to strategize how we can make that project more inclusive for everyone, and I’m brought on to all kinds of projects –from government commissions to very small brand design. Sometimes it’s because of a specific need –an organization needs to make something better for a particular staff member–, and sometimes it’s just because the client needs to attract or retain more talent; they want a more diverse talent pool, so they look to build in the flexibility from the beginning. In the last few years, I’ve enjoyed developing guideline approaches for specific companies, so they can ensure –regardless of who they are accommodating, or in what part of the world they are working from—everyone can expect to be included in that environment.
Q. Do you see any difference around the world in terms of how they prioritize inclusive work and living places?
Sometimes there are differences in what their primary focus is, but ultimately it seems that every country does want everyone to feel safe, welcome, and included. So that’s what they’re going for, leveling the playing field so no matter where you go you can always access that environment and the services that are being created for people.
Q. Is there a specific process you follow when you’re trying to identify the issues that need to be fixed? Do you assess first, do interviews or research?
It’s very specific to each client. Whenever a client wants to make a space more inclusive, the first thing we have to do is talk about their definition of inclusive design. Everybody comes with a different definition, and it’s great to have that conversation right at the beginning, understanding what they’re looking at because it’s a high-level term that can mean just about anything.
After understanding where they’re coming from we share knowledge and resources when we see an opportunity to enhance the definition, and then workshop it a bit –what does that definition mean, and how does it translate into their built environment and space?
Q. This is a very specific area in the interior design field. What drew you to it in the first place?
I was always passionate about interior design. At six or seven years old I knew it was the job I wanted to do, and I always believed, whole-heartedly, that it was going to benefit everyone. I didn’t understand why you would create an environment that wasn’t meant for the broadest range of people possible. And in school, I would always make sure that my hypothetical clientele had all kinds of different needs. So it was a no-brainer to me, but it became very personal when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), because it changed my perspective on how to make spaces fully accessible and inclusive for everybody and the changing needs of everybody over time, too.
Q. What makes space inclusive and accessible? Does it take more than just adding a handlebar or a ramp?
That is a great question and a loaded question. Accessibility and inclusive design are about embedding principles, and focusing on independence and autonomy. So, realistically, it’s not just one particular solution. You can’t solve everything by putting a ramp on the side of a building. But there are some things that we do which end up being used by everyone, and everyone benefits from them. It’s typically referred to as the “curb cut” effect. Curb cuts were installed to help people using mobility aids to get from the street side to the sidewalk, but now everybody uses them –parents with strollers, delivery people, etc.—and they even help identify where it’s safe to cross the street. We don’t even think about it now, we just look for them. If you’re struggling with a suitcase and you get to a point where there isn’t a curb cut, you get annoyed.
It’s great to see that kind of components embedded in and now generally expected by everybody.
Q. Are there other factors like light and ventilation that you wouldn’t think about unless you spend some time in a particular space? How to make sure it’s inclusive for people with different personalities, as well as emotional and physical needs.
One of the trends that we’ve seen over the last 15 years is the open office –everybody has an assigned seat or an open work station–, and that doesn’t always work for people that need to have a decompression space or a private focus area. So including areas where you can go and be away from that open office environment –take a call, have a break, or even just decompress a bit—is what we’re trying to achieve in a lot of design solutions. We’re not necessarily focusing on that, but it always seems like the right thing to do. That ultimately benefits everybody. If you have a neuro-divergence or require that decompression space, you can use it just the same as a person who’s having a bad day or needs to take a personal call at the office.
So some certain values and considerations can be made for everybody, and that is going to change the way we think about design.
Q. Is there a good way to measure how “inclusive” a designed space is?
I have yet to find a really good way because you never want to assume you know who’s using the space. Even when getting feedback post-occupancy, when everybody has been in the space for a few years, you don’t really know who’s in there, what kind of needs they have and how those needs are being met. So it’s always great to ask the question and follow up on anything that’s been designed –how is it serving you, what modifications need to be made. I’m campaigning for us to do a really good job of explaining design decisions before we hand the space over to clients, so they understand and it doesn’t end up being changed later on. Ultimately the question is, “do people feel good in that environment?” The COVID-19 situation is a great time to analyze and assess this: do you miss going into the office? What parts do you miss? Is it only your colleagues or is there something about that space that made you more productive? Did you feel healthier because of a certain design solution?
It’s a very good time for us to reevaluate what makes people feel good in space.
Q. How do we prepare people to go back to the workplace? People now associate offices with negativity, fear, danger. How can we mitigate that fear with solutions that are real but that also change perception?
We are doing a lot of research on this topic at Gensler, it’s something front-of-mind for us. Our research has proven that there needs to be a combination of spaces for collaboration and focus, and this will help people get back into that realm of work. It might end up with a few modifications we hadn’t thought of last year at this time. So it’s important to recognize that there’s no “one size fits all” solution for returning to work and that accommodating the employees is probably the most important piece. When we’re talking about going back, who’s comfortable and who’s not, it’s a very personal decision.
A lot of people are going to be able to give us good feedback on what parts they liked and didn’t like, so let’s explore that further.
Q. I suspect you’re going to be very busy soon when people realize that just a Plexiglas and lots of dividers are okay for now, but we’ll need to move to a new space and they need to think about all these issues. How to keep people not just physically, but emotionally healthy as well.
Yes, it’s the whole person.
Q. Would we say that bringing the whole person into the solution is an inclusive design imperative or a general design imperative?
Everything is inclusive, so I would say it falls in line with both. There’s a lot of emphasis placed on bringing your best self to work. So what does that mean, when we’ve all had a change in perspective? I’m keen to see how that changes, how we work, and what do we do when we work. It will be very interesting.
Q. You’ve been in this space for a long time, and you are an authority in the field. Have you seen any changes, trends, anything that points to the fact that there’s a need for inclusive design in space?
My favorite one lately has been how we, as a global society, have started to value and perceive space. It has fundamentally changed. People that use mobility aids identify a big gap between what the code required before and what was needed to make something as simple as a 360-degree turn in a mobility device.
A research was conducted with the University of Buffalo, in partnership with the Toronto Rehab Institute, to demonstrate that the majority of mobility devices used in North America needed a 2.5-meter turning circle, which is eight-foot three. So the five-foot turning circle just wasn’t cutting it for most people. So if you take a pause, you realize that since we’re being told a lot of the time to be six feet apart, if we had embedded that eight-foot three turning circle and cleared space, we probably would be a lot better off in coming back to environments which are not currently designed for that.
We’re seeing this revaluing of space everywhere –from grocery stores, to socially distant vacation spots. In Toronto, specifically, they added 40 miles of “quiet streets” –they took back the street from the cars and said, “these are going to be for people”. You can ride your bike, use your walker, anything you need to get up and about and have adequate space. That shows us that sidewalks are not made wide enough for people, and to put the emphasis back on people and away from the car is a trend I think we’re going to see more of.
There’s a reset happening, and that revaluing of space is changing everyone’s perspective.