By DAVID J. HILL
A quarter of a century. That’s how long a UB center that specializes in advancing universal design has been continuously funded.
The Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access, or IDEA Center, was just awarded another five-year, $4.6 million grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research for the center’s Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Physical Access and Transportation (RERC). The RERC is in partnership with the University Health Network in Toronto and the University of Michigan, among other stakeholders.
Over the past two-plus decades now, the IDEA Center — which is housed within the School of Architecture and Planning — has worked to advance the field of universal design. The center is a globally recognized leader in the field.
The center’s work has included developments to improve access to public transportation for people with disabilities, as well as a first-of-its-kind program, called isUD, that grants certification to buildings that prioritize inclusivity within their design and operations.
The funding comes at an exciting time for the center’s work, as the RERC will now be led by Jordana Maisel, director of research for the IDEA Center. In addition to new leadership on the project, there are new UB faculty members and community partners involved, as well as new research methodologies being employed.
“We’re really pushing universal design to the next level by supporting its commercialization and widespread implementation, and building the business case for it,” Maisel says.
This new round of funding marks the fifth cycle of five-year funding for the RERC, a project that touches a broad scope of domains, including museums, hospitals and office buildings, streetscapes, transportation systems and housing.
The new cycle will support the center’s ongoing work, while paving the way for new projects and partnerships:
- IDEA Center researchers will continue evaluating the implementation of universal design across different building types to further help establish the business case for UD, working with companies like Procter & Gamble and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.
- As part of the IDEA Center’s continued partnership with Toronto Rehab Institute/University Health Network, colleagues there will be leading a research effort that deploys new methods to evaluate environmental features and test interventions to improve pedestrian mobility. This builds on previous cycles of research that examined crosswalks and sidewalk conditions and slips/falls in cold weather climates.
- A development project will enable the center to refine and expand the innovative solutions for Universal Design (isUD) certification program. Recent successes with the program include the new Hampton by Hilton hotel in Amherst and the MuseumLab in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. The center plans to create new isUD modules related to housing, health care and transportation terminals.
- As part of a second development project, the IDEA Center will continue its longstanding partnership with Touch Graphics Inc. to develop products that advance wayfinding in the built environment. The center’s project on multisensory maps and models will build on recent successful installations at the Smithsonian and Alcatraz, and develop new features to enhance usability. It will implement and integrate advancements in touch-responsive technologies, voice-input controls and 3D-printing capabilities.
- The center’s Smart Sign project will continue with VIA (formerly the Olmsted Center for Sight) to install prototypes in VIA’s offices in Buffalo. Smart Signs will improve wayfinding by providing multisensory information for destination confirmation for all building users, enhanced knowledge of building features and operations, and improved facility management.
- A new training program with K-12 students aims to engage them in universal design education by partnering with the Buffalo Architecture Foundation’s Architecture + Education (Arch + Ed) program. The RERC will provide a mandatory UD training at the Arch + Ed orientation workshop in 2021 and 2023, as well as serve as a resource for the 20 teams throughout each semester to ensure their projects incorporate UD principles.
With the new cycle of funding, the IDEA Center will also expand its partnership with researchers in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “While we will continue to partner with our colleagues at the University Health Network in Toronto and the University of Michigan, we are extremely excited that this new cycle of funding is also bringing in new UB faculty from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences,” Maisel says.
Toward that end, Victor Paquet, professor and chair of industrial and systems engineering, and Chase Murray, assistant professor in the department, will develop and deploy improved modeling practices to evaluate the efficacy of incorporating intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and shared autonomous-vehicle fleets into existing multi-modal transportation systems. The project aims to overcome first- and last-mile challenges, with a specific focus on access to health care. It will assess how these technologies can improve efficiency, reliability and usability for all, but with particular attention to older adults and individuals with disabilities.
A new project evaluating the health benefits of universal design will be led by Lora Cavuoto, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; it will utilize direct measures gathered from wearable technology to document things like stress and heart rate in hospital settings that do and do not incorporate UD.
“This project represents an extension of an important collaboration between the School of Architecture and Planning and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences that has been ongoing for over 20 years,” Paquet says. “While I have worked as an affiliate member of the IDEA Center since 1999, I am very excited that other ISE faculty will have important roles on this project. Together, our schools, along with our other university and community partners, will advance the research and practice in universal design for the benefit of all, and especially for those who have disabilities.”