The New ‘Building Equity Standard’ Championing Our Differences When Designing

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When you first encounter the “Universal Design” concept, it might sound like a solid idea—approaching design with the intention of serving everyone—right on! What’s not to love about that? Well, as it turns out, there’s a lot not to love about that, which I recently learned firsthand from Dr. Victoria Lanteigne.

Dr. Lanteigne is a Principal of Research at Steven Winter Associates (SWA), where she’s developed a new resource aimed at helping practitioners embed equity in the design of the built environment. Introducing the Building Equity Standard (BEST). Aided by her background in public policy, Dr. Lanteigne created BEST as an antidote to the Universal Design school of thought. “The truth is, considering all people at once doesn’t genuinely enhance the lives of anyone,” she says. Because while it might sound like a swell idea, designing for “everyone” is impossible, considering the innumerable differences within the human race. Humanity can’t be treated as a monolith, where we flatten and simplify nuance and variety between humans in the name of equality. Instead, we should strive for equity within design, where marginalized identities are acknowledged, celebrated, and specifically designed for.

The LGBTQIA+ art gallery at the Memorial at Harvey Milk Plaza. Image courtesy of SWA Group and the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza. 

Upon hearing about BEST, I was eager to speak with Dr. Lanteigne directly to learn more. She recently gave me a primer on her research and opened my eyes to some of the pitfalls of Universal Design and the ways BEST attempts to address those gaps. Our conversation is below.

(Interview edited for clarity and length.)

What’s your background in the field of equitable and inclusive design? When did you first realize that Universal Design isn’t the solution?

I’m unique in the architecture world because I have a background in public policy; I started my career doing disability policy work. I was essentially given a portfolio of all of these cases of non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It became apparent that compliance and accessibility were really important, and non-compliance was a huge problem.

From there, I just snowballed into understanding not only the legal requirements but how little they do in terms of affording accessibility. I learned about the idea of going above and beyond what was required by law and code to enhance experiences for people with physical disabilities, sensory disabilities (hearing and vision), different cognitive abilities, and how people process information. That interest early on in my career made me curious as to how we create spaces that go beyond disability inclusion, looking at marginalized groups based on gender, LGBTQ identity, race, religion, or if you speak English as a second language. So, how do our environments shape our experiences, and then what are the design strategies to achieve those more equitable environments?

A contemplative lightwell featuring a culturally significant art installation at the Wing Luke Museum. Image courtesy of SKL Architects and the Wing Luke Museum.

I took an illuminating disabilities studies course in college where my professor framed disabilities as socially constructed. People are only disabled because the world around them isn’t built for them, which is what creates an inability. Learning that definition was mind-blowing to me.

I love that you just shared the Social Model of Disability with me! Not many people know of it or even understand it. It describes a key shift; it’s not an inherent problem with the person. It’s how the environment is designed (or not designed) to adapt or support people of different abilities.

Can you give an example of a Universal Design concept that typifies how most of our designed world doesn’t meet marginalized people’s needs?

The curb cut is the most classic example of Universal Design (which is boring, but it gets the job done). It’s a classic example because its intent is to support people in a wheelchair and people with mobility issues, but at the same time, it also supports somebody pushing a stroller or people carrying rolling luggage, bikers, and young children. The premise of Universal Design is that one design strategy can be cross-cutting, so it supports disability inclusion, but it’s also beneficial for everyone.

This terminology is like “design for all” or “design for everyone,” which started in the 1970s and 1980s, maybe a little before, but we still see it today. The reality is that one design certainly can’t benefit everyone. Realistically, that’s impossible when we look at this from an equity lens—which is just beginning in architecture. Right now, there’s this idea of one design for everyone versus having an equity perspective, which is making sure that we’re prioritizing marginalized groups’ and marginalized communities’ needs. Those are two different things.

Universalism says one for everyone. Equity says we’ve got to shore up these gaps and make sure we’re designing spaces for overlooked groups that have been underrepresented in design forever. We’re just beginning to see spaces that say, This is designed by and for the LGBTQ+ community. That’s important to me because I identify as a member of that community. These places use design strategies that reflect a safe space; we surveyed the community, and that’s reflected in that design. We’re not going to say it’s also designed for everyone. It’s a nuanced difference, and it’s still hard for the architecture industry to get behind because there’s that “usefulness” of architecture that people want to fall back on. This idea that, yes, it’s for a specific group, but it’s still good for everyone. That’s an interesting, ongoing debate. I don’t think Universal Design is wrong or bad. Equity is just a different way to look at it.

Pedestals to support LGBTQIA+ activism at the Memorial at Harvey Milk Plaza. Image courtesy of SWA Group and the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza.

Can you point to an example of a design or concept created with the BEST framework?

BEST is still really new, so it has yet to be applied. However, the research I did to develop it is based on four case studies that tapped into various marginalized communities, listened to what those communities were saying, and summarized and synthesized that into this resource.

One of those case studies was the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian American Experience in Seattle, Washington. The architects and the museum worked hand-in-hand with the AAPI community in Seattle to make sure they were designing a culturally safe and celebratory space that also captured the Asian immigrant experience. So, you see a lot of very specific design strategies in that project. For example, artwork that captures both the beauty and difficulty of the Asian immigrant experience. The community also wanted to maintain certain aspects of historical design that they felt told the narrative and story of immigrant experiences, so there are a lot of historically preserved artifacts and pieces. And then something as little as the community wanted a celebration room. Before the museum, there wasn’t a space to gather and celebrate, so they included this beautiful, celebratory space. These strategies directly reflect what the community said they wanted and needed.

The community “celebration room” at the Wing Luke Museum. Image courtesy of SKL Architects and the Wing Luke Museum.

Another one of the case studies was the memorial at Harvey Milk Plaza. The team there has been working to revitalize the Harvey Milk transit stop in the Castro District for many years and surveying the community to figure out how this space can not only work to honor Harvey Milk as a civil rights and LGBTQ+ rights leader but also how can it better celebrate the community.

This project is still ongoing, but really interesting design elements there speak to supporting ongoing activism for LGBTQ+ rights. As an example, there’s a pedestal at the corner that the community wanted to keep to elevate and raise the voices of the LGBTQ+ community physically. It’s a unique strategy that might not apply to all projects, but it fits here. These kinds of unique design projects are what I built BEST around, and I hope it will be used to create in the future as new projects begin to adopt it.

Part of the “immersion exhibit” at the Wing Luke Museum, a set of historically preserved apartments where early Asian immigrants resided. Image courtesy of the Wing Luke Museum.

What are your long-term goals for BEST? What’s your dream scenario for seeing BEST implemented across the architecture industry?

Right now, it’s in a piloting phase, which is exciting, and we are actively looking for the right partners to begin building this. Those partners can look very different. They can be university academic partners, community-based organizations, or tenant representation organizations. A broad brush of stakeholders is going to help expand BEST.

My ideal hope, whether it’s with BEST or whether it’s just with equity in general (though I hope it’s with BEST), is that we get to a point where equity is considered an integral part of the design process, just like sustainability is, and just like how healthy building is beginning to be. Right now, we’re very far away from that. I hope that as BEST continues to grow, it will become a resource that is robust enough to be an industry-adopted standard, like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), like WELL, like Enterprise Green, etc.

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