Universal design is the practice of designing an environment in such a way that it is accessible and usable by the greatest number of people possible, no matter their age, cultural background, or ability.
Interior design juniors explored the ins and outs of universal design this spring semester when they were tasked with researching the Hmong culture and designing a house that combined Hmong and American lifestyles. This studio course fuses Dr. Tasoulla Hadjiyanni's research on culturally sensitive housing, that is housing that supports diverse ways of living, into the curriculum.
“We were asked to think about culturally sensitive design, or designing so that other cultures can adapt the space for their own needs,” explained Rachael Springman. Through readings, the students became familiar with Hmong history and cultural practices, which they then incorporated into individual housing designs for a vacant plot of land in St. Paul, Minnesota. “The main thing I focused on was trying to make sure that space could be manipulated to work for anyone that lives there. I also paid special attention to the kitchen. Having lots of space in the kitchen and providing a large sink were two aspects I thought were crucial because we learned that cooking is a very important part of Hmong culture and that many people may all cook at once,” said Springman.
The students had four different hypothetical clients they could choose to design for, “Most of us picked the family with eight individuals: Two parents, two children at college, three children at home, and an elderly relative,” explained Abi Lundstrom. “We had to consider the number of individuals that would be using the space and how we would design for them. I took the approach of making all of my rooms easy to separate or rearrange as needed.”
For his house, Ryan Welters based his entire design on the lotus flower and water lily. “In Laos, where the Hmong are originally from, they have the lotus flower. Here in the U.S., we have the water lily and so in my design, I try to incorporate the two of them.” This is just one of the many overlaps that Welters was surprised to find between the two cultures. “I found it quite easy to design for multiple communities in one house without overthinking it or overcomplicating it. It’s interesting to me that designers don’t naturally include these universal design elements when it’s quite easy to do.”
Students also learned about the many different ways individuals use spaces. “Designers tend to create spaces with a specific purpose in mind for that space. But the users of that space may end up using it in a completely different way. There isn’t a right way to design a house,” concluded Lundstrom.
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