8 Student Projects Demonstrate Ingenious Approaches to the Future of Accessibility

The winners of the 2nd Annual Universal Design Awards reveal how the next generation of designers are rethinking accessible architecture.

Ross Brady Ross Brady

Universal Design, the practice of creating environments equally usable by anyone regardless of physical circumstance, is increasingly gaining traction among design professionals. As this practice requires designing beyond minimum standards set by codes that seasoned practitioners have spent decades learning to master, a change in approach must come from the bottom up. That’s why the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture hosts an annual Universal Design awards program for architecture students with Ascension Wheelchair Lifts.

Now in its second year, the program aims to instill in future architects an inclination to envision how the spaces they design will be used. “The ability to imagine spatial experience is essential in architecture,” Teresa Rosano, one of the program’s studio professors, said. “Doing so can hone our awareness of all our senses and also serve as a practice in empathy – a skill that transcends any discipline.”

For this year’s program, students were asked to design an arts center on a steeply sloped site in Bisbee, Arizona, a town defined by elevation changes. Public staircases, emblematic of the challenges facing the implementation of Universal Design, are famously utilized by the town to connect vertically separated streets, including on the site chosen for the competition. Here’s a look at the winning designs.


“Bisbee Mercado” by Alexis Campion

First place honors went to Alexis Campion’s Bisbee Mercado, an open-air space for local artisans to make and sell their work. Neatly organized around a three-story atrium, each floor opens to the exterior directly at grade, connecting to an adjacent commercial district, city park and residential neighborhood without level changes.

Campion also considered sensory concerns caused by the site’s slope. “Digging into the earth can create an environment similar to a basement,” she said. “To resist this, I split the space down the center to create an atrium bringing light into all the spaces.”


“Bisbee Art Center” by Andy Demetriou

Inspired by an existing graffiti-covered wall on the site, Andy Demetriou’s Bisbee Art Center was awarded the second place prize. Demetriou’s design kept the existing wall in place, expanding it into an ever-evolving outdoor gallery. “Over time, the graffiti changes into new designs and layers on top of each other,” he said.

The outdoor gallery is distributed onto several levels connected by a simple, intuitive system of ramps. These levels are all aligned with the levels of an adjacent, indoor multi-purpose space, leading one juror to describe the solution as “masterfully integrated Universal Design.”


“Apiledo Theatre Company” by Brandon Willmon

Coming in third, Brandon Willmon’s Apiledo Theatre Company reconciled Universal Design principles with the enjoyment of kinetic performance styles. Centered around the exhibition of Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that combines acrobatics with music and dance, mid-air stages hang dramatically in a triple-height performance venue ringed by fully accessible viewing areas on multiple levels.

“My inspiration for a ‘free floating’ performance, in lieu of a better phrase, was derived mostly from the fluid nature of Capoeira coupled with getting physically challenged members of the community involved in such a physically demanding art form,” he said.


“Bisbee Sculpture Park & Museum” by Ralph Mersiowsky

Ralph Mersiowsky’s Bisbee Sculpture Park & Museum earned the program’s “Innovation in Universal Design” award by co-locating multiple modes of vertical circulation, ensuring a common experience of traveling from floor to floor. Distributed across three levels with minimal overlap, the challenge of artfully placing a staircase, elevator and ramp adjacent to each other was overcome by making each one a unique architectural feature.


“Light + Life + Performance” by Tyler Newman

Garnering the “Innovation in Graphics” award, Tyler Newman’s design for a group living community explores the effect that light and materiality have on perception. Focused on tactile experience for the benefit of people with differing levels of sensory ability, walls and floors featuring wood, concrete and other materials offer feelings of warmth, coolness or other sensations depending on the time of day.


“Culinary Arts Center” by Eva Serbin

Eva Serbin’s methodology for creating a culinary arts center bisected by an open-air thoroughfare likened to a canyon won the program’s “Innovation in Design Narrative + Process” award. All the various uses in the multi-level “canyon” are connected with an ingenious system of ramps one juror described as “an exciting spatial experience all can participate in.”


“The Living Mural” by Alyssa Fink

Alyssa Fink’s The Living Mural distributes its program across separate buildings but makes the paths between them the star of the show, “highlighting the spatial quality and experience of the in-between spaces,” as one juror put it. Switch-backing ramps between buildings are surrounded by artful graffiti displayed on dramatic architectural forms, earning the project one of two “Innovation in Design Concept” awards.


“To Intersect & Carve” by Freddy Arvizu

Awarded the second “Innovation in Design Concept” honor, Freddy Arvizu organized spaces dedicated to painting and artist housing within overlapping, angular forms one juror called “a strong generative move that is carried throughout the spatial experiences.” Eschewing ramps, a centrally located elevator offers easy access to all parts of the building.

To learn more about how you can make your upcoming projects accessible with the help of the experts at Ascension Lifts, click here.

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