27th Oct 2021 — SWA Research Grant: “but what does an…

SWA Research Grant: “but what does an accessible building look like?”

 

SWA believes strongly that good architecture is supported by knowledge and passion and that making time for research and reflection is central to enabling this. In order to embed research more firmly SWA’s culture and support all staff in developing their own capabilities, interests and careers, SWA offer a bursary once a year to enable a member of staff to take some time out for such a pursuit. The project proposal can cover anything, but should enhance interests, provide stimulus and have a clear output that will feed back into the work of the practice, helping to build up intellectual capital. A key aspect of the research has how it is communicated back to others both in the practice and beyond.

 

In Summer 2021, Clare Bond, Architect and Diversity Champion, was awarded SWA’s research grant to conduct primary research into the relationship that people with impairments have with the built environment, exploring methods of engagement and what makes an accessible, inclusive space.

Introducing the Research

The research builds on a submission for Habinteg’s 50th birthday essay competition at the end of 2020, which was awarded runner up. The focus of the essay was the next 50 years of construction and how architects and designers can make the built environment more accessible and inclusive. It argued that we need a diverse set of designers to have to best chance at creating inclusive neighbourhoods and proposed a simple, 3 step framework that designers could begin to follow.

Step one of the essay framework was meaningful community engagement – this research project builds on step one by exploring a method to find, listen to, understand and record diverse voices and experiences, through interviews and collage. The following text, written by Clare, summarises the process, outputs and reflections of the research project.

Diagrams taken from the Habinteg Essay
The Interviews

SWA partnered up with the insight group at Habinteg Housing Association, seeking four people living with impairments to take part in the research. The engagement then consisted of four separate interviews, each with a different individual and focused on different disabilities and lived experience.

Three of the interviewees had lived experience of one or more of the following: mobility and dexterity impairments (including paraplegia), immune system sensitivity, multiple severe chronic illnesses (including Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS), Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), Crohn’s), hearing impairment,

 

neurodiversity’s including learning disabilities and mental health struggles, including depression. One of the interviewees was for 12 years, the sole career for her severely disabled late husband and shared her experience of navigating the built environment alongside him.

The interviews were virtual due to Covid-19 and although it was disappointing to not meet the interviewees face to face, the online nature of the research removed any physical barriers which could have made taking part in the project inaccessible. All interviewees were offered guidance on using MS Teams ahead of the interview taking place.

 

Each interviewee was asked the same six questions (left). These questions were sent in advance to allow the interviewee time to prepare and reflect on their answers should they wish.

 

The interview responses provide valuable user insight to myself, my colleagues at Sarah Wigglesworth Architects and our peers within the wider built environment sector, but the challenge was how best to take the information I had learnt from the interviews and share that in a meaningful and engaging way.

The Collages

Equipped with over 4 hours’ worth of interviews, I first considered writing up the interviews word by word – this felt like it would be the most accurate representation of each person I spoke to, however, I then questioned how many people were likely to read that quantity of interview text, including the ‘ums’, ‘erms’ and general ‘chit-chat’ which was an inevitable (and enjoyable) part of the interview process but would not make for the most concise written text. As a designer who wanted to take what I had heard, remember it and embed it within my own bank of resources (and encourage those who engage with this research to do the same), I also wondered how much I would get out of that process.

 

An edited write-up, although now incorporating elements of the recorders biases, might be more to the point and arguably a more useful resource for the recorder, SWA colleagues and broader peers. But this common way of recording interviews favours those whose strength is reading. This research wanted to explore different methods of communicating engagement to designers and other stakeholders, celebrating variety and diversity within both processes and people. A method that could be of increased benefit to those communicating the information, as much as those receiving it.

The interviews were recorded for internal reference, then later used to inspire a visual interpretation of the interview which was created whilst listening back to

the conversations had. The graphic collages produced (below) have been created as a way to capture and share the experiences of each individual.

Jai
Andrew
Angela
Amy

 

I reflected on the different ways that people learn. As a creative, visual learner, I knew I would benefit from something visual, graphical and colourful. As a kinaesthetic learner, I also knew that physically making something would further strengthen my connection to each person’s story. The collages that have been created by me are as much a reflection of how I learn and communicate information as they are a representation of the interviews themselves. They are a truly personal documentation of each conversation had.

 

The collages have been made using various waste material found within the practice office – old magazines, model making materials and other scrap papers – supplemented with specific images sought following the interviews. Each is layered with a mixture of unique experiences and shared struggles.

Biases and Diversity of Thought

Accessibility takes many forms for many different people and I hope that these collages and this research go some way in demonstrating the individualities and complexities of each person’s experience and the importance of meaningful engagement to increase diversity of thought within every design process. By continuing to be curious and investigate how others use, understand and navigate the built environment we hope to assimilate new insights that can help designers such as us improve the experiences of a wider range of people.

As designers, it is critical that we acknowledge that we all have biases based on our own lived experience, therefore, it must be said that these collages are my interpretation of each interview, therefore, it is inevitable that they will have been influenced by my biases.

One might conclude that architecture will never be free of the bias of the designer or decision maker – one designer with one set of biases, resulting in bad buildings and places that only benefit the small group who share those biases. What a depressing thought.

As we all work harder to educate ourselves, I’ve come to know bias as a bad word and experience as a good word. Broadly speaking, if bias is based on our experiences, is there a space in which we can value it once it has been acknowledged?  Although all experience is valuable, it is diversity of experience that we must strive to translate into our work, ensuring that the experience (or biases) of those in the communities that we are designing for are represented, not just the bias (or experience) of the designer. A varied group of individual biases that become diversity of thought.

“But what does an accessible building look like?”

This is not the right question for designers to be asking, much like asking ‘what does a sustainable building look like?’ or ‘what does a feminist building look like?’. The accessibility and inclusivity, sustainability or feminist qualities of a building cannot be captured in a single aesthetic or within a checklist of building elements.

These things are deeply embedded in process and user experience – accessibility takes many different forms dependant on who you’re asking. I hope that this research and these collages go some way in demonstrating the individualities and complexities of each person’s experience and the importance of meaningful engagement to increase diversity of thought within every design process.

 

 

 

Finally, a small amount of money is available to support SWA staff deliver their research proposal. By conducting interviews online and using recycled material to create the collages, I was able split this money between the four interviewees, providing vouchers as remuneration for their valued time. I would like to take this opportunity to once again thank Jai, Andrew, Angela and Amy for their honesty and openness.

 

If you would like to talk to Clare in more detail about this piece of research, please feel free to contact her via clare@swarch.co.uk.