Building for the Most Vulnerable

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Most places we frequent are not optimized for users with disabilities, but disability is a surprisingly complex word. All of us will experience impairment in our lives at some point – but how and when that makes a person “disabled” can seem like an arbitrary cutoff. We are increasingly recognizing the need to accommodate cognitive impairment in the design of spaces. Good design accommodates individuals who experience an impairment and provides multiple avenues for completing tasks.

Something new is happening in the design and construction industry.

As a culture, we are realizing that the way we design our buildings and cities has a profound impact on our health. For decades, designing high-performance buildings has been first and foremost about energy use. Today, there is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates how building performance can also be measured through occupant health. The cutting edge of this evidence is from neuroscience and psychology – what we know about the brain and behavior.

As someone who is sensitive to noise and light, I’ve always been attuned to this psychological dimension of space. A desire to create better spaces led me from architecture into research and design for the sensory environment. I’m honored to be included with leading thinkers on brain health and urban design in the “Van Alen Report 20: Healthy Brains Healthy Cities.” I argue that it’s time to update our notion of “accessibility” to include those who experience cognitive impairment. I’ve seen first-hand how this translates into better design for everyone.

To read Stuart’s essay in its entirety, visit www.vanalen.org/stories/building-for-the-most-vulnerable.