Willowdene School and Beyond: my gateway into accessible design

Hilary Ennos

Hilary is an Asspciate at Shepheard Epstein Hunter. Hilary is the practice Accessibility Champion and is a member of the Access Association.

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This month is UK Disability History Month which has led me to reflect on the development of my knowledge of accessible design. My interest in this subject was sparked while working on Willowdene School at Oakmere Road and since then has continued to grow and influence my work as a designer.

Before joining Shepheard Epstein Hunter in 2014 I was feeling disillusioned with the profession of architecture, coming from a previous job working on a speculative residential development for the ultra-rich paid for by investment funds. There was no connection between people and the architecture which would serve them, the aspect which most interested me as a student of architecture. However, at Shepheard Epstein Hunter I was shown a refreshingly different perspective in a practice which has people-focused design at its core.

One of my first projects with SEH was Willowdene School at Oakmere Road, a secondary school for pupils with a wide range of complex needs such as autism, physical disabilities and sensory disabilities. The site itself was not ideally suited to the needs of the school; being a four-storey disused Victorian building with multiple extensions, split levels and to be shared with an education training centre not connected with the school. Despite this, there was a strong determination from the school and project team to make the project a success. I participated regularly in the consultation with the extremely experienced staff at the school which took place throughout the project. I learned from them the importance of considering every detail and specification, from the choice of colours and finishes to the layout of a specialist changing place, to ensure that the new school could meet the needs of the pupils and staff. There was always a fine balance between pupil care and safety while also providing opportunities to challenge pupils and foster independence.

Since working on Willowdene I have continued to seek out training opportunities relating to accessible design and apply my knowledge in the projects on which I work. One notable seminar was run by an access consultant who was part of team designing the accessibility strategy for the London Olympics and Paralympics, the legacy of which has informed the future accessibility strategy in the City of London. In almost every training session I have attended relating to accessible design the same mantra is repeated: ‘It’s more than just complying with Part M.’ I have found this to be true on every project I have worked on. The Building Regulations do cover some very important standards which help to make buildings accessible to more people. However, the most important part of the design work comes from close collaboration with relevant stakeholders, especially those who will use the building. Accessible design requires exploration of a building through all of the senses. There are sometimes good reasons to diverge from general regulations and guidance to meet the specific needs of the building user.

One misperception of accessible design is that it only fully applies to certain buildings such as specialist schools and housing or to certain rooms within buildings such as accessible WCs. It is true we must continue to improve the standard of accessibility in these places but there is a growing recognition that the accessibility of the entire built environment requires careful consideration in order to allow the whole of the population to enjoy participation in society. The accumulation of seemingly small obstacles: stepped-kerbs, temporary construction works, heavy doors, echoey acoustics or lack of public toilets keeps both people with disabilities and their family, friends and carers from accessing places and services for living, learning, working and leisure. In many cases accessible design is simply good design which offers benefits to everyone.

New legislation is gradually embedding more inclusive design in new development. Next year new legislation will require changing spaces which include accessible WCs and changing beds to be provided in many new public buildings, shopping centres and large public attractions. There are also plans to review accessible housing standards and provide more guidance on design for neurodiversity. There are also many insights to be gained following the Covd-19 pandemic such as the challenges that people with disabilities have faced in carrying out their daily activities but also the benefits many have gained from remote working.

I recognise that I am just at the beginning of my education in accessible design and I need to continue to learn, particularly from people with disabilities and carers of people with disabilities. This year I joined the Access Association, an organization of professionals working in accessible design, and I am learning from their experiences and from the new research which many are undertaking. I also enjoy seeking out information from broader range of sources such as books, films, blogs, articles and podcasts which can add a much-needed personal insight of the experience of living with disability.

Willowdene School and Beyond: my gateway into accessible design