Making Buildings Work -- Fitting Buildings to People

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When laying out any of the circulation spaces in buildings — doors, corridors, stairways — designers have to keep in mind that furniture and appliances occasionally must pass through the building. That is, doorways can't be made so narrow as to exclude refrigerators, sofas, desks, or pianos. Tight turns in corridors and stairways may be impassable for such objects unless additional maneuvering space is provided.

Lobbies serve several important functions in the circulation systems of buildings. Entrance lobbies let people entering or leaving a building slow down, button or unbutton outer clothing, think about where to go next, adjust their eyes to the new lighting level, fiddle with umbrellas, comb windblown hair, or wait for taxis or friends. Theater lobbies serve these functions, and they also let members of the audience exercise their legs between parts of a performance. A lobby is really an expansion chamber in an otherwise linear flow network, a place at which people can step out of the moving stream and stop for a moment or two.

Outdoors, designers work at a different scale. People are still the measure, but now they are walking more rapidly or riding in vehicles. They need more room to allow for this more rapid movement and for expanded spatial expectations. Space between buildings must let sunlight penetrate. Air must circulate freely. Acoustical and visual privacy must be protected by the distance between buildings and by the buildings’ configuration. Comfortable walking distances and times become the yardstick for planning local facilities, and driving times or public transport times measure the convenience of places in an urban region. At this new scale, unfortunately, the small-scale necessities of people’s bodies are often over looked by designers. Who has not yearned for a drinking fountain, a comfortable bench, or a public rest room while in the midst of a shopping or sightseeing expedition? Who has not felt personally betrayed by a nameless designer of a city who forgot that people are human?

Both outside and inside buildings, human safety is an important design consideration. Buildings can cause accidental damage to the body in an alarmingly diverse number of ways, some of which are enumerated in the accompanying chart below. Thousands of Americans are killed in accidents in buildings each year, and tens of thousands are injured, many seriously. Many of these deaths and injuries could be prevented by more careful design and better building maintenance.

Table of Accidents Caused by Buildings

  • Bumping Catching, Pinching
    • Low headroom
    • Uncontrolled door swings
    • Unprotected door edges
    • Doors that open into traffic
    • Blind corners in bus corridors
    • Projecting doorknobs, railing ends
  • Cutting, Scratching, Puncturing, Skinning
    • Sharp edges and corners
    • Floor-to-ceiling glass
    • Projecting nails, screws, bolts
    • Splinters
    • Rough surfaces
  • Falls
    • Tripping: Low obstacles uneven floors, edges of rugs, objects left on floors
    • Poorly-proportioned stairs or ramps
    • Railings too low or non-existent
    • Poor illumination
    • Slippery floors or stairs
    • Loose rugs
  • Scalding, Burning
    • Confusing hot-water tops
    • Unprotected steam or water pipes
    • Unprotected heating appliances
    • Stove too close to circulation path
    • Building fires
  • Electrocution
    • Faulty appliances
    • Faulty wiring

Disabled people are entitled by law to access to public buildings that is equal to that provided for able-bodied persons. The disabilities covered by this guarantee include loss of sight, loss of hearing, loss of function in legs or arms, and a host of other physical and emotional incapacities. The rationale behind the law is compelling: about one American in six is disabled in some way, and nearly all of us will experience disability at some time in our lives, perhaps a broken limb as a teenager or failing eyesight or decreasing muscle function as a senior citizen. The consequences for designing circulation spaces in buildings are far reaching, beginning with tactile and audible signals of various types for those with sensory disabilities. Those with physical disabilities need special parking spaces; ramped access through curbs and other minor changes in level; a convenient, linked system of ramps and elevators for moving vertically through a building; wider doors; larger vestibules; special drinking fountains; more ample toilet facilities with grab bars; special telephone facilities; lower counters for banking and shopping—the list goes on and on. An architect must learn to design accessible buildings as a matter of reflex. Circulation paths and facilities for the disabled must flow from his or her pencil as gracefully and naturally as does any other feature of a building design.


A growing group of architects and designers is promoting universal design, which is a step beyond designing for the disabled. In universal design, all parts of a building are designed to be usable by all people, even if on crutches, in a wheelchair, or blind. The key idea of universal design is that separate but equal special facilities for the physically handicapped are not sufficient. Rather, one should eliminate elements of a building that are not usable by every human being and substitute for them elements that are.



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