Conceptual Framework

Home » Standards Development » Conceptual Framework

Universal Design

Note: The definition and the Universal Design Goals presented here were developed by E. Steinfeld, IDEA Center, University at Buffalo, Copyright 2010, and are used here with permission.

Universal design increases usability, safety, health and social participation through the design and operation of environments, products and systems in response to the diversity of people and abilities. It is a way of thinking that can be applied in any design activity, business practice, program or service involving interaction of people with the physical, social or virtual worlds.

The Principles of Universal Design have been used to define the concept of universal design worldwide. From these Principles, a set of Universal Design Goals can be identified to provide clear and measurable outcomes that apply across all design scales. The first four are related to support for activities. The fifth is focused on health and environmental quality issues and the last three are related to support for social participation:

  • Body fit – accommodating a wide a range of body sizes and abilities
  • Comfort – keeping demands within desirable limits of body function and perception
  • Awareness – ensuring that critical information for use is easily perceived
  • Understanding – making methods of operation and use intuitive, clear and unambiguous
  • Wellness – contributing to health promotion, avoidance of disease and  protection from hazards
  • Social integration – treating all groups with dignity and respect
  • Personalization – incorporating opportunities for choice and the expression of individual preferences
  • Appropriateness – respecting and reinforcing cultural values and the social and environmental context of any design project.

The practice of universal design is evolutionary in character. There are no absolute levels of performance since each project context determines what can be achieved. It is a continuous improvement process and can be implemented regardless of constraints or the level of technology available. The success of each application has to be evaluated by comparison to prevailing norms in a particular place and time rather than against an absolute standard. Thus universal design standards have to be flexible and accommodate change as new knowledge, technologies and needs emerge. Flexibility is also needed to address affordability and a range of different resources and constraints. Nevertheless, in any given context and time horizon, e.g. commercial buildings in North America over 20 years, it is possible to identify and benchmark standards that represent a significant improvement over prevailing norms.

Purpose of the Standards

The Universal Design Consensus Standards are voluntary guidance standards that can be adopted to incorporate universal design principles into new and existing commercial buildings. They are intended to complement existing accessibility standards by identifying and encouraging the incorporation of features that increase usability, safety and health for a diverse end user population. Adopting the Standards has many benefits for business:

  • A branding opportunity to promote the social consciousness of an organization
  • Enhanced customer experience leading to increases in satisfaction and loyalty
  • Market broadening to reach a diverse clientele, for example, the maturing market, tourists or frequent travelers
  • Reduced operating costs through increased safety for customers and staff, reduced burdens on customer service, reduced sick leave and increased worker morale
  • Improvement in facilities and business practices to gain a competitive edge in the marketplace
  • In short, the universal design standars will add significant value to real estate development by supporting the goals of customers and increasing productivity of staff.

Consensus Standards

The Consensus Standards are divided into five Sections: 1. design process, 2. site elements, 3. building elements, 4. customer service, 5. facilities management. A supplement provides Design Resources that are referenced in the standards. Each Section has several sub-sections.

A Proposed Rating System

The standards have been developed to meet the three basic universal design goals of usability, safety and health. They are simple and easy to understand and the benefits of adoption are obvious. Benchmarking is achieved through a numerical rating system that was developed through an open consensus process involving a wide range of stakeholders. Certification is based on meeting performance goals through a variety of strategies rather than compliance with a lengthy list of prescriptive technical criteria. The rating system is also designed to reduce the burden of the certification process. Evidence of performance can be provided easily by the building owner and verified easily by the Commission.

The rating system will work as follows:

  • For each building type a relevant set of components and systems are identified based on type of occupancy
  • Each component has a set of related Performance Guidelines
  • The Guidelines each address how a building would satisfy end user goals
  • A set of optional Strategies are listed as suggested ways to address each standard
  • Each Performance Guideline is given a total number of points that can be achieved toward accreditation
  • Strategies are assigned points based on the extent to which they address the Goals for Universal Design above.
  • The strategies adopted determine the total number of points achieved.
  • Some particularly innovative strategies are assigned extra points to provide an incentive for adoption.
  • Additional strategies pr innovative ideas will be accepted through expert evaluation and approval.
  • Each building type has a total possible score based on the total number of points possible for that building type, including Innovation Opportunities.
  • The rating assigned to each project is an index computed by the actual score divided by the total possible score.

 All buildings have to comply with laws and codes in their respective jurisdiction addressing safety, accessibility and health issues. Compliance cannot be assured by the GUDC. Thus adoption of the universal design standards is independent of legal compliance with existing laws and codes. However, use of the universal design standards will help adopters meet those laws and codes by providing good practice solutions.

GUDC logo

Global Universal Design Commission

Global Universal Design Commission, Inc., (GUDC) a not-for-profit corporation, was established to develop Universal Design (UD) standards for buildings, products and services.



Physical Address

Global Universal Design Commission, Inc. (GUDC)
Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University
950 Irving Avenue
Dineen Hall, Suite 446
Syracuse, New York 13244-2130