Ed Roberts Campus: A Case Study of Social Justice through Universal Design

Presented by: Kyuho Ahn, Linda Zimmer, Olivia M. Asuncion

Adopted in 1991, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates the accessibility of public buildings. Since its implementation, designers have become adept at following ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) in order to achieve compliance. However, multiple studies (Ostroff and Hunter, 2003; Sherman and Sherman, 2012) argue that the majority of public and commercial buildings that comply with ADA regulations fall short of supporting independent use by people with disabilities due to passive and/or shortsighted implementation of ADA regulations. Universal Design exceeds the ADA by conceptualizing that all products, services and environments should be designed for all people, regardless of ability. In this case study, we examine the Ed Roberts Campus (ERC) in Berkeley, California. Designed in 2011 by Leddy Maytum Stacy (LMS) Architects, the ERC is a center for disability rights organizations, and as such, universal access was a driving goal in the design. The ERC has been widely published and serves as an important example of moving beyond ADA compliance and toward universal design. LMS worked extensively with a large and diverse user group in identifying design goals that include celebrating the diversity of the human condition and providing replicable design solutions. LMS defines replicable solutions as those that can be implemented by others using available technologies and products. The notoriety of the ERC, makes it important to conduct further research to gauge the success of the ERC in meeting these goals five years into the life of the building. The case study utilizes three building performance criteria suggested by Presser (1983): Health, safety and security; Functional efficiency and workflow; and Psycho-sociological aspects. We conducted document/archival research, interviews of the architects and four key board members in their offices at the ERC, and analyzed conditions on-site that included a visual-impairment usability simulation, as well as evaluation of traces of use. The collected data were analyzed via architectural mapping. As a result, several themes emerged that overarch those three building performance criteria: Predictability, Choice, Sensory Equity/Dueling Disabilities and Simplicity/Intuitivism. Predictability, or the user’s confidence in navigating a space without compromising perceived safety, comfort and goal attainment, seems to be the most important issue for people with disabilities in evaluating the quality of building performance and space. Second, Choice and Sensory Equity/Dueling Disabilities, deal with providing multiple ways of accommodating different disability conditions for services and wayfinding. But because accommodating people with one disability could conflict with the needs of those with another disability, providing sensory equity can pose a challenge. Third, Simplicity/Intuitivism can be achieved with multidisciplinary collaboration. For instance, the intuitiveness of an automatic door with sensors can work well with the building’s centralized access to several transportation options, such as a local metro network, paratransit and private cars. We found that the ERC design demonstrates that Universal Design provokes perception of a welcoming environment among users and enhances building performance aesthetically and functionally. The ERC case study sheds light on the LMS design process and goals, but also on the ongoing operations of the building and use by occupants.


  • Ostroff, E., and Hunter, D. H. (2003). Social justice in architecture: Promoting universal design and human diversity in architecture education and practice through the accreditation process [Position paper]. Retrieved from National Endowment for the Arts website http://www.nea.gov/resourc
  • Preiser, W. F. E. (1983). The habitability framework: A conceptual approach toward linking human behavior and physical environment. Design Studies, 4 (2), 84-91
  • Sherman, S., and Sherman, J. (2012). Design professionals and the built environment: Encountering boundaries 20 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act. Disability & Society, 27(1), 51-64.
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