Integrating Sustainable and Universal Design: A New Approach to Achieving Excellence

by Annie Cornett

As the emphasis on environmentalism and conservation continues to grow, it is becoming more essential than ever for the design and construction of new facilities to not only meet requirements for providing access for all individuals, but to also embrace this “green” philosophy. Universal and green design are not technically design styles, but simply points of reference that often influence the design and construction process. They have the ability, when integrated together, drive the design process creating facilities that are more user friendly and environmentally conscience as well.

Understanding Standards in Sustainable Design

Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, a set of internationally recognized standards known as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) are designed to provide a “…framework for identifying and implementing practical and measurable green building design, construction, operations and maintenance solutions.” This voluntary certification program provides verification that a facility was designed and built using strategies aimed at ensuring resources are used more efficiently than traditional building techniques.

LEED certifications promote what is known as a “whole-building” approach, attempting to anticipate how the facility may evolve over time so it can be constructed in a way to allow flexibility in use, ease of renovation, and with considerations for potential disassembly. In promoting this approach, performance in several key areas are identified: 

  • Sustainable Sites: Encourages the use of undeveloped land, minimizing construction impacts on surrounding ecosystems, choosing regionally appropriate landscaping, and the reduction of erosion and light pollution. 
  • Water Efficiency: Encourages the smarter use of water through efficient appliances and fixtures.
  • Energy and Atmosphere: Encourages the use of strategies to monitor and reduce energy consumption ranging from design concepts to efficient appliances, as well as the use of renewable and clean energy sources.
  • Materials and Resources: Encourages the use of strategies to monitor and reduce energy consumption ranging from design concepts to efficient appliances, as well as the use of renewable and clean energy sources.
  • Indoor Environmental Quality: Encourages the improvement of indoor air quality and the use of natural light.
  • Locations and Linkages: Encourages facilities and home be built on previously developed sites in areas with minimal impact on the environment.
  • Awareness and Education: Encourages the education of those living in or using the facility on the sustainable concepts of the building and how to effectively use the features.
  • Innovation in Design: Encourages the use of new, innovative technologies to improve performance beyond what is required by other LEED credits.
  • Regional Priority: Encourages adherence to regional environmental concerns established on a local level to meet the specific needs of a particular region.

Trekking Downtown…

Often viewed as a model of both sustainable and universal design in the Midwest, Access Living unveiled its new headquarter building in Chicago in 2007. The twin values of universal design and green design are at the centerpiece of Access Living's new office space. It has energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, snow melted sidewalks and a green roof. Workstations accommodate a wide array of disabilities. Deaf workers communicate with a Video Relay System, allowing them to use sign language over a video screen with a specially trained operator. Elevators have front and back doors, which prevents people in wheelchairs from having to navigate to the front of a crowded space.

Access Living Public Relations Coordinator Gary Arnold is happy to say green design fits well with the universal design requirements in their new space. “Our restrooms have motion-controlled and sensored toilet flush valves, water faucets and soap dispensers. Even the lights are sensor-operated.” Savings are seen in both energy and water, and there are no levers to push or pull, making the fixtures accessible to everyone.

…To Big Sky Country

Universal design and sustainable design are now also beginning to influence plans for facilities designed to support parks and recreation.

Old Faithful Visitor Education Center
Old Faithful Visitor Education Center

For Yellowstone National Park, the decision to incorporate both sustainable design as well as accessible features when it came time replace the almost 40 year old visitor center at Old Faithful seemed a natural choice and provides an example for others to follow when considering the construction or remodel of an existing facility. The visitor center at Old Faith was first constructed in 1972, and is located at the halfway point between the parking area and the scenic view of the most famous geyser in the world. Unfortunately the visitor center could no longer meet the demands of the 3 million visitors to Yellowstone each year. “It really wasn’t meeting the needs of visitors,” says Sally Plumb, the Yellowstone NP Division of Interpretation's Project Manager. Park interpreters wanted to provide a greater educational experience for visitors and take the opportunity to correct a list of accessibility deficiencies that had been identified over the years.

Twice the size of the original facility at 26,000 sq. ft., the newly constructed Old Faithful Visitors Education Center (OFVEC) opened its doors for the first time on August 25, 2010 on August 25, 2010 to help visitors understand the world's greatest array of geysers, hot springs, mud pots and steam vents The first National Park Service Building to achieve the Gold level LEED certification, the OFVEC was commended for its decision to build on the footprint of the original building thus minimizing ground disturbance, recycling almost 100% of construction waste, utilizing materials that contained high percentages of recycled materials, and designing the facility to use 1/3 less energy than other buildings of similar size and function.

The new exhibit space includes new interactive exhibits, a special exhibit area for kids, a resource room/library, and a virtual visitor center. Several considerations were also taken to ensure the overall accessibility of the facility provided the opportunity for all individuals to experience the exhibits, films, and materials the center has to offer. The construction of a new auditorium within the facility included accessible seating options, closed captioning for all films and assistive listening devices. Audio components which were created within the exhibit hall also include closed captioning, and several displays offer tactile experiences.

The total cost of the project was $27 million, more than half raised by the Yellowstone National Park Foundation through private donations.

…To the Heartland

There are dozens of new facilities sprouting up across the country where universal design and sustainable design are the focus in the planning process. Two more of interest, in particular to park and recreation providers, should be the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Project at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Southwind Park in Springfield, IL. The Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk project is a collaboration between the municipality, the county and the National Park Service. Located along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, the project restored land once used by U.S. Steel to recreation space for walkers, bikers, anglers and families. The Southwind Park project is a new park created by the park district from land gifted to the agency. The navigation and visitor orientation signs at the park were funded through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Access to Recreation initiative.

…To Your Neighborhood

Do you have a new park or recreation facility that embraces the universal and sustainable design philosophies? Let us know, send e-mail to