Accessibility is an environmental issue

Global warming and climate change are perennial high-profile topics that should be taken seriously.

Read the book called ‘Heat’ by George Monbiot and you’ll be convinced, if you aren’t already.

Because accessibility is considered an environmental issue, I am a member of the Habitat Committee of SAIA. There are 7 committees which drive the focus of the South African Institute of Architects. There are only two meetings a year, so it’s no talk shop. The other five members are all devoted environmentalists, and still aren’t quite sure where I fit in.

Of course, I have always maintained, as a universal design proponent, that no one sector should have to compromise or sacrifice to satisfy another; this applies to energy efficiency, good aspecting as well as easy access for everyone, and good aesthetics. For architects to remain relevant they have to take the lead in promoting all these things, and participate in saving the world!

In addition, there won’t be a point when we can throw up our hands and say “the world is saved”, we will have bought into a lifestyle forever. There are many theories of how this can (or can’t) be achieved. One of the depressing things is that it is difficult to continue using energy-efficient lamps, and only turning on the air-conditioning when it’s really cold (or hot) when Mr. Jones is burning 100 Christmas lights, and using a car which gobbles fuel.

Sustainable architecture
George Monbiot suggests rationing. No matter. What I’m trying to say is that when the movie stars start arriving at the Oscars in electric cars, instead of the guzzlers, we know that this trend is going to take off, and we’re going to do it! Architects call it sustainable architecture. That means the buildings and the pieces between them, and the communities that are created by them, should be sensitively made and managed through their lifetimes.

It would be interesting to know if sustainable buildings are actually more expensive to build. They are definitely less expensive to run, and while ‘whole life costing’ is a pertinent part of a building development these days, this must be an important factor to take into account. If this is achieved in conjunction with universal design principals, it will also be what makes environments suitable for everyone, now and in the future.

Triple bottom line
Sustainable development is increasingly focused on the ‘triple bottom line’ of Social, Economic, and Environmental sustainability. Sustainable construction is about having the cities we need at the lowest environmental, social and economic cost.

I have been thinking too of the numbers of people who are ‘temporarily disabled’. In a document brought out in 2000 when the population of South Africa was 44.5 million people, 4.9 million were (officially) disabled; 4 million were HIV+; children under 6 totalled 6 million and the elderly accounted for 4.9 million. Altogether that adds up to 19.8 million people which is 44% (just under half of the population.)

Add to those the mothers with pushchairs, people with luggage, people recuperating after being ill, or traumatized, and it probably is half the population. Subconsciously one of the main reasons why society gets fed up with making allowances, or having to think about inclusive environments, is that society has the general idea that it really should not be necessary for such a small sector of the population.

Recognized group
Well, it’s not a small sector; and it’s not just about including toilets here and there, and adding a ramp, and/or a lift. Although disabled people are not the only group of people affected by environmental design, they are a recognized group of people who have been significantly impeded from using the environment.

Well insulated, ventilated and energy-efficient buildings and good spaces in-between are particularly important to many categories of disabled people. Another thought about the ‘temporarily disabled’ is that in business and government, the man-hours worked is always an important statistic used in production analysis, and profits and competitiveness. If a worker can return to work as soon as possible, instead of staying away while he still has to use a wheelchair or a walking aid, it is an advantage. If a ‘disabled’ toilet is available and the office is accessible, he can do this. Or even if he is a crane driver, and can fill in with some office work until he recovers, it makes good sense.

Hopefully it will be recognised by wider society that accessibility is an environmental issue too. It is not going to delay the aims of environmentalists, and will add to the sustainability of all places if they do not have to be adapted.

"The purpose is greater than the pain." Anonymous

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