Model Inhabitants

ARCH 402A: Architectural Design IV

Instructor: Alfie Koetter

FA. 20

In this studio, we considered issues of accessibility in architecture, namely as they are related to spatial barriers in our built environment. Using the ADA’s Standards for Accessible Design, students transformed a self-selected inaccessible precedent, culminating in a proposal for an accessible 2,000 – 3,000 sf single family home.

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Who is a building designed for, exactly?

We could answer this question in terms of the demands of a given client, or the requirements of a given program, or even the specificities of a given site and its community. These are, to be fair, important things to think about.

But just beneath the surface of these considerations is a more sweeping set of anthropometric assumptions that all-too-casually cast a preferred or “model inhabitant” – to borrow a term from Lance Hosey – for our buildings in general. One doesn’t have to look much further than the first few pages of Architectural Graphic Standards to get a sense of who exactly this inhabitant might be. While in more recent years, the book has included a more diverse set of archetypes, historically, the various methods used to represent the body reveal ‘the human figure’ to be male and white. And non-disabled.

Given the near ubiquitous use of Graphic Standards as a professional resource (it is endorsed by the AIA and, according to Google Books, is the “architect’s bible”), it is not a reach to say that this bias has an impact. From the heights of counter tops to the rise and run of stair treads, these so-called standards are baked into the built environment that we interact with on daily basis. For those of us who approximate the model inhabitant, they might go unnoticed (a privilege, to say the least). But for those of us who don’t, the standard dimensions extracted from this archetype have the capacity to present as cruel and exclusionary barriers.

On the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, this studio will focus its attention on the removal of these barriers by way of the ADA’s Standards for Accessible Design.

Over the course of the semester, we will take a deep dive into the history of the ADA in an effort to radically transform a set of non-compliant precedents. Rather than simply applying the ADA’s guidelines in the form of alterations or additions to be shoe-horned into or tacked on to an existing building, we will consider them as a primary and holistic design criteria. We will use them to cast a new model inhabitant; to establish a new set of dimensional standards; and ultimately to produce a new spatial, organizational and formal language for our buildings.