Front of the LVR Landesmuseum

"Since man has been building, architecture has reflected his physical and mental needs. This is what it says on the website of architect Dirk Michalski. What does this sentence mean? After all, people's physical and mental needs are diverse, which in turn places direct demands on the topic of accessibility. Paragraph 4 of the Equal Opportunities for Disabled Persons Act (BGG) defines "barrier-free" as follows: "Barrier-free are structural and other facilities, means of transport, technical commodities, systems of information processing, acoustic and visual information sources and communication facilities as well as other designed areas of life, if they can be found, accessed and used by people with disabilities in the generally usual way, without particular difficulty and basically without outside help. What exactly this means in relation to architecture and building and what "universal design" means in this context - we spoke with Dipl.-Ing. Dirk Michalski, architect and expert for barrier-free planning and building.

Mr. Michalski, what is behind the term "Universal Design"?

When we talk about universal design and buildings, for me the following is hidden behind it: the design and accessibility of the building, which is first thought out for the largest possible user group in an appealing universal design and then executed by the people involved. This means that the path and accessibility of the building is designed in such a way that it can be clearly and reliably recognized by as many people as possible, for example for doors or entrance situations.

And what does "barrier-free" actually mean?

Barrier-free means above all free of barriers. It means that I don't design or build barriers that would exist as such for some people. A simple example: a wheelchair user cannot cope with an accessibility that is only possible via steps. The steps would then be a barrier. For blind people, on the other hand, a barrier would be if there was a large open space in front of a building entrance without any orientation possibilities towards the entrance. What is a relief for the wheelchair user can be a possible (or possible) obstacle for a blind person. Here it is necessary to weigh up the options in the universal design process: What is the best and ultimately usable for everyone? Are there aspects that are mutually exclusive and how do I find the best solution for them?

People use tactile guidance system in front of the LVR Landesmuseum

Not only aesthetically valuable, but also sensibly designed: Forecourt of the LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn (here Dirk Michalski was involved as an expert for barrier-free planning and building) - orientation system according to DIN on the basis of the paving with light granite band, which allows easy guidance to the entrance.

Photos: Johannes Zell,


Costs are a major issue for building owners. Must barrier-free building be expensive?

When you talk about costs and accessibility, you have to talk about comfort above all. The question starts in the mind: Do you see accessibility as a construction measure that is designed as an extra - or as something that is a convenience for many people anyway? Let's take the example of the elevator: An elevator is, of course, a relatively cost-intensive component, which therefore plays a role in the budget. But if I connect several floors together and have an elevator in addition to the stairs, I don't think the term "extra cost" is appropriate. After all, the elevator makes it much easier for mothers with baby carriages, people with suitcases, or people with impaired mobility in wheelchairs or rollators to use the building. Consequently, the assumption that accessibility makes building additionally expensive is not appropriate. Rather, accessibility is a normal feature in today's technically demanding times and the increasingly comfortable world. Take the example of the bathroom: 20 years ago, the barrier-free shower was something very special and therefore relatively expensive. In the meantime it has become a standard in bathroom planning. There is no longer any talk of additional costs, only of the comfort aspect.

A guidance system for the blind means - depending on the accessibility problem I have to solve - of course an additional effort, but that depends on the skill of the planning. What I think about from the beginning and include in the design and planning is easier to implement and has a higher aesthetic value. This basically describes the process of universal design. In this way, I can think along with a boundary, for example. If I plan a green area in front of a building to make the entrance more attractive, then I can cleverly and sensibly include and use the edge of the green area as a guiding edge for the blind.

Where do you see the greatest misunderstandings and omissions when it comes to barrier-free building?

The biggest problem arises when accessibility is not thought through from the very beginning, which leads to the question later during the use of the building why it may not be barrier-free in certain places. Then, of course, the annoyance and ultimately the cost aspect are relatively high. In perception, there is then often a problem that is equated with accessibility. If accessibility is part of the normal design process - namely: I have a task and I am looking for the best possible solution - then I can take my time to consider how I can best achieve this solution. Then this view of accessibility as a problem does not even arise. In addition, this way I can take my time to look for the cheapest possible integrated solution and save myself expensive "retrofitting".

How can one raise awareness of the topic so that the aspect of accessibility in construction projects is automatically taken into account?

In NRW there has been a binding accessibility concept for special and public buildings since 01.01.2020. This is a functional instrument that "implants" the concept of universal design in all those involved - I would say - in their lives. At first as a small plant, which can now grow with time. In other words, in NRW this is now comprehensively required as a plan and text part of the building application as a building inspection template.

Some areas are regulated by laws and standards - where would improvements be necessary?

I personally am very satisfied with the current barrier-free concept. Where there are still adjusting screws that need to be tightened, that will become apparent in the coming years. It is also primarily a question of dissemination, so that everyone works more or less in agreement and it is equally comprehensible to everyone. That is why I would very much welcome it if the concept were to be gradually applied in all other German states as well. For Europe, there is currently a standard on accessibility that is being worked on. I am a member of the DIN committee. But this will take some time. The first draft standard has 300 pages. This is not practicable. So that everyone can handle it, it would have to be limited to 30-40 pages. The origin of the standard was based on the fact that construction projects in Europe must be put out to tender throughout Europe. In future, there should be a standard for this purpose, which should be added to the documents so that there is comparability in this respect.

Let us come to the entrance area. What applies to entrance mats?

The entrance is a special building situation that has to meet several requirements. Above all, I have to be able to find and use it easily. And from different angles. Let's take a blind person and a walker driver as examples. The latter must lean on the walker and therefore has very little freedom of action. If we assume that the door opens automatically, at least the operating forces are eliminated, which is a relief in itself. Now it is important that the rollator user can use the door at ground level. At the same time, there is the conflict of goals that the blind person must have a tactilely detectable guidance. He cannot do anything with a completely smooth, flat surface. It is important for him to notice that he has arrived at an entrance or has reached his destination. This can only be achieved by a floor structure. For example, when I come from a paved surface to an entrance mat, I have a slight tactile distinction, one material is slightly softer, the other relatively hard. Among other things, the entrance mat must also represent the aspect of drainage and cleaning so that dirt and water from the outside are not carried into the building from the inside. Now if this mat can be used well with the rollator, I have found a good solution for both groups of people. There are more and more good solutions, but there is still a lot of catching up to do in this area due to the size of our country.

You yourself have been a wheelchair user since an accident - what annoys or delights you especially in connection with barrier-free architecture?

I am always enthusiastic about beautiful, high-quality, barrier-free solutions. Unfortunately they are rare. But I am also happy when very simple solutions are found. I have often experienced this abroad. For example with antique sites or older buildings that are not at ground level due to their condition. Simple, uncomplicated solutions can ensure barrier-free access, for example ramp or bridging solutions. In other countries, this is often implemented with simple solutions, on the one hand because there is not so much money available, and on the other hand because there are not so extensive regulations as here, where some things are somewhat overregulated. Unfortunately, these extensive regulations in Germany often stand in the way of some good solutions, especially in the field of historic monuments. What annoys me? Thoughtlessness. When I find things that could have been done much better with very simple solutions.

Portrait of Dirk Michalski:

  • Member of the DIN standards committee for barrier-free construction of the DIN Institute e.V. in Berlin for the standards DIN 18040 - 1,2,3
  • Member of the Federal Association of German Experts and Consultants BDSF
  • Curator of the IDM Foundation
  • Member of EDAD Design für Alle - Deutschland e.V.
  • DIN CERTCO certified specialist planner for barrier-free building - DIN 18040 - 1,2,3
  • Specialist for building and living
  • Member of the Chamber of Architects North Rhine-Westphalia

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