Thought Leadership

How can architects incorporate cultural diversity in their design?

Today, the 21st May, is World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development 2021. To mark this day our Managing Director, Nathan McNamara reflects on his personal experiences and his conversations with our team as to how we as architects can further incorporate diversity and inclusion into our designs.

When I was asked to consider writing a post on World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, I looked at the United Nations website to see what this day should really stand for. The UN state that ‘we mark these occasions to educate the public on issues of concern, to mobilise political will and resources to address global problems’.  I have to admit that when I read this, I found some of this terminology quite striking… ‘issues of concern’, ‘global problem’, ‘mobilise political will’.  

I think the UN are right to highlight this matter of concern to us all, and we should have an open dialogue on the issue. We then need to understand what we can do personally, and as an organisation to improve the situation. As a colleague puts it, we need to do our best work, but not in our own image.  Clearly the issues around cultural diversity are complex and sensitive, however as someone said to me this week ‘you need disruption to accelerate change’. I think that’s what has bothered me this week leading up to this ‘world day’. The amount of progress hasn’t been enough both in terms of cultural diversity and diversity and inclusion in general.

At DB3 we have had a great month, we have moved into our central Leeds HQ, recruited some superb new staff and had another Part II Architectural Assistant successfully qualify and become an ARB Registered Architect. Also this month we have conducted a review of all of our policies (as we do every May), and as I sit in front of our suite of policies, I feel that we need to do more to ‘progress’ change than we have ever done before. So what disruptive action can we take? As architects and designers, what can we actually do to improve inclusion and diversity?

The first thing we can do is to widen the lens on our environment, or better still use a different lens. Our friend Akin Thomas from AKD Solutions encourages us to understand the challenge as being about incorporating these principles into great design. I.e. How does an appreciation of diversity and inclusion affect design? How can focussing on diversity and inclusion make design better?

 He’s right! At DB3 we think this is achievable through exposing ourselves to different answers, and the way to generate different answers is to ask different questions. So what should we consider? Gender, cultural heritage, sexual orientation, socio-economic background? If we consider this in design, if we really consider it, I mean REALLY consider it, does that make it more or less likely that design and end user fulfilment levels in our projects will be lower or higher?

And what about our Home & Maker business for example? Our online offer is specifically designed to provide homeowners with a bespoke service. What would that business look like if we were more disruptive with our Diversity and Inclusion Policy? What would our homes look like in that context? This week I met someone who is 5’ 1”, who for all her life has been navigating a kitchen that is designed for a narrow band of the ‘normal’ distribution for height. I.e. 5′ 4″ to 5′ 10″. Do we think that she should have an array of step ladders and boxes in her kitchen to reach the back of cupboards? Of course not…

We need to take responsibility for letting this happen. This is where the equity lies in design. We must enter into a dialogue about requirements by consulting the ‘empty chair’. By including the ‘end user’ in the process, surely we get a better design. By considering all potential end users, surely we can make better decisions?

 Another example I was given this week of a lack of diverse thinking in design is the consideration of binary choices around male and female toilets, and dry leisure changing rooms. The question we were asked is “How do you deal with the case of the individual who may be transitioning? Which changing room or toilets they use? I’m afraid the answer to date is that we don’t consider that enough.  Immediately, when considering these inclusive questions, we start to see the world through the ‘new lens’. We ask the question – should we de-gender toilets and changing rooms and redesign them for all? It seems sensible to me that through this new lens the answer is yes. The ‘diverse’ and/or ‘inclusive’ design is a better answer to the design question.

I think our Sedbergh Leisure Centre is a good example of how to get it right. An extensive local consultation highlighted regular insensitivity to the needs of people from different cultural backgrounds in leisure centre changing facilities. We addressed this with designs that incorporate changing facilities that are inclusive of the needs of the Islamic community of Bradford as well. The same can be said about Beswick Leisure Centre where a public consultation resulted in addressing the real needs of the local residents.

This proves that as one of the premium sports and leisure architects in the country, we can actively change the diverse landscape for the better. Rather than passively designing what has been done before, we actually changed something. There is no need for a political will, just an awareness of the needs of the individual. We accepted the fact that diverse needs exist, and we made the relevant adaptations. That’s inclusion.

Also this week, I had someone highlight to me how the world is built for men. Not just men, but tall able-bodied men, with big hands. They commented that the smaller, lower hand driers in our Leeds studio were great, because someone had finally designed something with women in mind. I was quite surprised by this feedback and asked “designed for men?”.

“Yes!” the declarative answer came back “not just for men, but with no appreciation of people with minor disabilities”. The issue seems to be about standardisation. Standardisation of chair heights, toilet heights, sink heights in bathrooms, cutlery, petrol pump hoses, train luggage storage, task chair depths, zip tap design etc etc. On reflection they are all clearly made for a ‘standard’ person. I was also told that for petite women, “the heaviness of toilet doors can be a really embarrassing problem, especially when you are holding a bag or wearing heels.” This isn’t feminism, tokenism or symbolic gloss, this is pragmatism.  Inclusion is simply a more effective strategy. It’s not a compromise, it’s just a better answer.

As we come to the end of our business rebranding exercise at DB3 and I sign off the policy review, the next step for us is to more clearly define our plan to integrate Diversity & Inclusion considerations into our business. Our policy will change to call out the need to widen our lens, or use a different lens to see the challenges people face. We will target the wants and wishes of real people, who actually need to use the space we create in 3, 5, 10 years from now. We will enshrine a duty to develop building solutions that are more in tune with true needs, not unitary specifications. We will commit to designing buildings that can be more appropriately utilised, more effectively operated and more valuable!

I am confident that if we can get this right, our buildings will be different and we will be different too. This is progress, this is progress through design.

Date Published: 21 May 2021

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