Synergies between Universal and Sustainable Design

Presented by: Stephanie McGoldrick, Nicolette Gordon

There is a rising popularity of building rating systems like WELL certification and increased awareness that health, wellness, and resiliency of building users are as critical as environmental concerns. Interior design curriculums must ensure students have the ability to integrate strategies that collectively address these issues into their projects. Simply incorporating sustainability into interior design does not always meet the needs of users and occupants, and conversely universal design approaches sometimes ignore the importance of sustainability. If universal design is about giving individuals with varying abilities and limitations access to control their own surroundings and participate similarly in all activities within a space, then shouldn’t designers also empower these individuals to have more control over their impact on the environment? Saunders (2015) explains in his article, “Accessibility: The Missing Dimension of Sustainable Design”, that “…the concept of social and environmental sustainability are not at odds with each other; rather they enhance each other.” (p.25). Saunders reinforces the idea that a holistic approach to interior design is imperative and should showcase the links between these two subject areas. Instructors should guide students to create comprehensive design projects that highlight the idea of social sustainability, while also addressing environmental sustainability and universal design as one. In the article, “Universal Design as a Significant Component for Sustainable Life and Social Development,” the authors state that “social sustainability relates to how the environment influences human quality of life,” but that this is often neglected and environmental sustainability has been given more emphasis (Kadir & Jamaludin, 2013, p.179). This poster presentation will explore the way these concepts can be equalized and enhance one another, while focusing on synergies that exist between universal design and sustainable design. Examples of some of the synergies that may be presented include energy efficient lighting that gives off less heat, resulting in reduced environmental impact but also protection of users with visual limitations from burns that come from incandescent light sources. The lighting selections presented will also ensure adequate lighting levels, color rendering, and controls that are both accessible and sustainable. Smart technology will be explored that uses clear visual cues like the Nest thermostat, which can assist those with cognitive disorders or memory loss while ensuring cost and energy savings. The presentation will use two separate projects designed by a graduate student as case studies, one from a studio with a sustainability focus, and the other from a studio with a focus on universal design. The faculty and student will re-evaluate these projects to showcase where the overlap between these topics already exists, and assess where the synergies between sustainability and universal design could be enhanced. Additionally, they will identify how the WELL Building standard aligns with the synergies they present to see if this building certification program serves as an adequate model for demonstrating links between sustainable and universal design. The majority of interior design curriculums seem to explore these topics independently, so methods for implementing this holistic approach and establishing relationships between universal and sustainable design in studio courses will be presented.


  • Saunders, M. (2015). Accessibility: the missing dimension of sustainable design. Natural Life, 24-28.
  • Kadir, S. A., & Jamaludin, M. (2013). Universal design as a significant component for sustainable life and social development. Procedia - Social And Behavioral Sciences, 85, 179-190.
  • Szenasy, S. S. (2012). Reflections on sustainable design. Journal Of Interior Design, 37(1), vii-x.
  • Morton, J. (2015). Support occupant health with the WELL Building Standard: this certification enhances wellness using the built environment. Buildings, (9). 19.