The architecture of tomorrow must be created for a healthy planet as well as all of the people who live on it. Sustainability has risen to the forefront of cultural discussion over the last few years. As a result, green design has become significantly more popular in plans for new buildings around the world.

However, inclusive design has not been given the same attention, despite being an important component of green design. Only recently have discussions about disabilities, inclusivity, and accessibility begun to circulate in media and public discourse. Inclusive design is deeply connected to sustainable design, though, and the world will need both in order to build a better future in architecture.

A Big-Picture Design Mindset

Inclusive design and sustainable design naturally go hand-in-hand because both require a unique, open mindset. Architects who design for the benefit of all people have to look at their buildings from an angle that goes beyond how they would use it or what their client has in mind for the structure. They must look beyond a flashy design and ask whether or not it will benefit the area it is built in, both during the construction process and after.

This big-picture mindset means taking the time to consider the entire community and every person, plant, and animal. Experts have pointed out this connection between accessible and sustainable design, which complement each other for the wellness of a building’s occupants.

Designing for inclusivity actually increases the sustainability of a project because it is better able to serve the needs of the people who utilize the building for a long time. Imagine a secretary who works at a new office building in their twenties. This secretary loves their job and has a long career in the building. An inclusively designed building will be just as welcoming to the secretary when they are young and fit as it will be when they are older and need to use a walker.

On a similar note, inclusive design opens up opportunities for citizens with disabilities to apply for the same jobs as everyone else. It can be easy to forget that the way a building is designed can quite literally change someone’s future. Thinking about the future in this broader way naturally also leads to thinking about how the building will affect the environment, locally and globally, in the long term.

Uneven Legislation

Despite a lack of cultural attention, accessibility has a longer history in legislation than sustainability does. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990, becoming the largest piece of legislation in the U.S. specifically created for people with disabilities. 

This law states that public buildings and businesses of a certain size must have structural accommodations for people with disabilities. This takes a variety of forms but often pertains to access to a building, such as accessible parking spaces or ramps alongside stairs. The law applies to the entirety of the U.S.

Similar legislation for sustainability in construction and architecture is much more spotty. Some states and cities have enacted laws requiring that older buildings be disassembled for reusable materials rather than demolished, which has been considered a significant step forward for green building proponents. While legislation and action for both sustainability and accessibility in design continue to develop further, both will benefit from each other.

Social Responsibility

Ultimately, the link between inclusive design and sustainable design comes down to a shared sense of social responsibility.

Architects and designers must remember that they are being trusted to create pieces of a physical community, and people with a variety of disabilities are part of that community. People with disabilities are a big part of the global community, as well. An estimated one in four adults has a disability of some sort in the U.S. This includes people with sensory disabilities, such as limited hearing and vision, which change how a person experiences architecture.

In recent years, people have been speaking up more about both sustainability and inclusivity, with increases in demand for sustainable goods and greater media representation for people with disabilities. This indicates that there is likely to be a rise in demand for buildings that are centered around both inclusive and green design. As more attention is drawn to sustainability and accessibility initiatives, clients and stakeholders are more likely to request elements of both initiatives in their designs. The responsibility falls on architects and designers in both cases to create structures that are beautiful, functional, and welcoming to everyone.

Industry leaders have stressed the importance of discussing inclusivity in design early in architectural education. This makes accessible design an intuitive part of the design process for the next generation of architects and designers. Similarly, younger generations have expressed greater concern about the environment than their elders, suggesting that green design will be a much greater concern for the architects of tomorrow.

When both cutting-edge sustainable design and inclusive design elements get integrated into a project from the very beginning, more ambitious new projects will be able to impact the entirety of society.

Architecture for All

The link between inclusive and sustainable design is about a shared intention to build a world that is better for the wellness of everyone, regardless of age or ability. Sustainable design is not just about creating buildings that are better for the local wildlife. It is also about creating buildings that improve the physical, emotional, and economic wellness of everyone connected to the building, whether a supplier, neighbor, or occupant.

Inclusive design takes that momentum even further by ensuring everyone gets to enjoy the benefits of sustainable design. When sustainability and inclusivity are implemented side by side in design, the architectural world of tomorrow will be a healthier, more welcoming place for all.