The Need For Independence, By Ron Wickman

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My own experience with the design and construction of the curbless shower area began in the early 1990’s. This typically meant a renovation to a bathroom in a single-family detached home. Most homes were older and floors were framed with dimensional lumber (2 x 10’s and 2 x 12’s). In these cases, we were able to trim the floor system to allow for the curbless shower area. Today, floor systems are framed with engineered joists; these joists cannot be trimmed down, therefore making the curbless shower retrofit much more difficult. This is why it is best to construct a curbless shower area in every new single-family detached home. Renovations are getting more and more expensive and difficult.

My own experiences also confirm that curbless shower areas were once thought of as only used by persons with disabilities, especially those individuals who use wheelchairs. We once spoke of roll-in showers, implying showers for the use of individual in wheelchairs only. Today, the term curbless shower better defines that this type of shower is better for everyone. The curbless shower promotes safety, independence, and flexibility. One can shower while standing, sitting on a shower seat or even sitting in a wheelchair; and there is no curb to trip over. When the bathroom is designed and constructed to be one big wetroom, the shower area can be large enough to accommodate any future use; even if someone who is disabled needs a caregiver in the shower area too. When designed right, this type of wetroom will never need to be renovated.

Today, when I am the Architect of a residential project, I design the bathroom to be a large wet room; and it is easy to convince my clients that this is the best way to go, whether they are in a wheelchair or not. I also prefer to custom build the curbless shower area as opposed to a pre-built unit. The custom built shower area can be as big as we want to make it, can take on any look that we want, and frankly look much better than the pre-built unit.

Hub Mall: Edmonton's Finest Building? By Ron Wickman

“This building offers tremendous choice for movement except if you are in a wheelchair.”

–Ron Wickman


EDMONTON'S FINEST BUILDING?

Hub Mall in Edmonton has always held a special place in my heart. But as I have continued in my practice of accessible architecture, I see serious problems with the space, which was never intended to be accessible when it was first built. The interior has an appealing stacked density in its functions with classrooms, a circuit of shops and coffee shops with student dormitories above under the same roof. All of the dorms’ windows face the interior of the multi-purpose mall space, providing light and interest.

However, since accessibility was never considered in its initial design, entrance to the facility for anyone in a wheelchair is neither logical nor intuitive.  Inadequate signage and the changes made to facilitate accessibility make it necessary for someone to have a companion with them whenever they first choose to access the building.

The above image illustrates my favorite building in Edmonton—the Hub Mall, located at the University of Alberta. The building has been featured prominently in important architectural publications in both North America and Europe.

Its pedestrian street containing shops, eateries and other services one level above the ground make this a glorious animated space full of people and activities. Despite my fondness for the space, it mirrors some of the flaws in the way accessibility has been incorporated into the architecture as an afterthought, rather than as inherent to the design, like the incorporation of natural light, for instance. The Hub Mall has multiple entrances and was originally designed without a formal main entrance. The entrance identified in the above image was added after the original build. Visitors need to move up a long flight of stairs to get to the plus15 elevated link between the Mall and the Fine Arts Building, located further south of the Mall. 

Anyone who cannot use the stairs must find another route to get to the Mall’s pedestrian street. On the concrete structural post to the right is a small blue sign with a white wheelchair symbol and a directional arrow. Though this sign is clearly pointing individuals in wheelchairs to an accessible building entrance, there is no way for them to know this starts the path to the HUB Mall’s pedestrian street. 

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The above image shows a second accessibility directional sign, similar to the first.

Only those individuals who are familiar with the Mall’s barrier free path of travel will know how to get to the upper level. Beside the sign is a concrete ramp that leads to one of the Fine Arts Building’s main floor entrances. For any building to be truly accessible, the inside core of the building must be clearly understandable. It must work. 

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The above image clearly illustrates the inherent difficulties in practicing accessible architecture in which accessibility is not an element in the initial design process.

Once inside the Fine Arts Building, a directional sign above a set of double doors directs you to the elevator. For anyone with limited vision or travelling in a wheelchair, this signage would prove difficult to locate and read. 

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The above image shows the plus -15 pedestrian link.

If anyone can find the elevator and take it to the level of the elevated link, which leads all individuals to the pedestrian street, they will encounter this inside view of the elevated link. 

Finally, the above image illustrates the pleasures of the HUB Mall’s pedestrian street.

The building is a beautiful example of building design with order, density, and complexity. Clearly, however, accessibility did not factor into the original design, and attempts have been made to create accessibility over the years, with limited success. An elevator located at the main entrance would seem to be the most practical solution.