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Designing for Accessibility is a Social Responsibility

The road to becoming an architect has been long for Harsh Mehra – both in terms of geography and professional growth.

After Harsh completed his education at Sushant School of Art and Architecture in Gurgaon, India, he further honed his expertise with a Master of Advanced Architectural Studies in Environmental Design from the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. Over the subsequent decade, he was director at the AHK Design Studio in New Delhi – a multi-disciplinary design firm founded by his father, a practicing architect for more than 40 years.

Harsh was living the dream he had as a young boy; while other children were playing with toys, Harsh was fascinated by the world of brick and mortar. Not only did Harsh become the chief designer at AHK, but he also prepared design proposals, checked drawings, specifications and other construction documents, and monitored activity on construction sites to ensure compliance.

In addition to his multifaceted responsibilities, Harsh championed the integration of sustainable strategies aimed at securing LEED credits. But persuading his clients to embrace eco-conscious practices proved to be a challenge as their focus was fixed on budget constraints.

This marked the juncture where Harsh found himself at odds with his country’s prevailing design culture. He had to come to terms with the fact that it did not align with his passion for sustainable design.

“I felt a bit stagnated because of the social environment. India, being a fast-paced developing economy, is not an easy place to experiment as people are more concerned about financial returns, resulting in sustainability and accessibility taking a back seat in design,” said Harsh. “So, I decided to move.”

Half a World Away

Harsh and his young family moved to Canada just over five years ago. He landed a job at Thibodeau Architecture + Design (TAD) in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he worked as a project manager. He also had to get re-certified as an architect as his credentials from India did not transfer.

“Architecture is not the same here,” said Harsh. “In India we have brick, mortar, and concrete and here it’s all wooden construction. The details are different. The specifications are different. And in terms of other factors, such as environmental and social, they’re completely different too. So, it’s been a new birth for me.”

Harsh in the Vancouver offices of TAD and going through the accessibility handbook.

Harsh is not one to shy away from personal growth, a hallmark of a true creative. As he climbed back up the educational ladder, he remembered his time after moving back to Delhi from the U.K., when he was also a new dad. This experience alone presented a different lens through which to view the built environment.

“I started to realize that most of the places I went to while pushing my kid’s stroller were not accessible. There were no ramps, no push buttons on doors, no accessible features in buildings. That broadened my perspective even more — on top of the fact that there’s already need for sustainability in architecture due to the current climate crisis,” said Harsh.

Harsh knew he wanted to learn more about accessibility. He enrolled in Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification™ (RHFAC) Training and, in 2021, received his RHFAC Professional designation meaning he can rate buildings and sites for their level of meaningful accessibility based on the holistic experience of people with mobility, hearing, and vision loss.

“RHFAC broadened my horizons,” said Harsh. “I used to think designing for disability was about people who used wheelchairs. It introduced me to how people with hearing loss interact with their environments, how people with cognitive disabilities react to a particular space, and so on. RHFAC Training really helped me in identifying barriers for all people on the disability spectrum and, consequently, removing them from my designs.”

What stuck out for Harsh was the notion that designing spaces with accessibility in mind extends benefits to the broader population rather than just a select few. He also learned that this pursuit of inclusivity could coexist with aesthetic beauty.

“Accessibility can be integrated well into the aesthetics is one of the key points,” he said. “The building has to be user friendly for all its occupants and not just for certain segments of the population.”

Harsh has put his big-picture talents to several projects at TAD. He’s been involved in several sites that have achieved RHFAC Gold, the highest rating a building can obtain in the RHFAC program. This includes LaSalle College Vancouver, which is under construction; a collaboration between TAD and Tony Osborn Architecture + Design; five Maximus Canada Employment Services locations in B.C.; and accessibility audits with design concepts to improve the accessibility of more than 50 Canada Post locations across the country.

An interior photo of the Maximus WorkSafe B.C. office (Penticton, B.C.) which received RHFAC Gold. Office entrances were highlighted with use of a different coloured carpet.

Branches of the Same Tree

Equipped with insights from LEED and RHFAC, the principles of sustainability and accessibility are woven into the fabric of Harsh’s design ethos. He views this as a natural progression, envisioning a wider adoption of this approach within the design industry.

A convergence of legislation measures, public demand, and Canada’s shifting demographic toward an older population are poised to propel sustainability and accessibility into the realm of standard practice.

“It’s not just about getting these certifications; it’s just good design practice,” he said. “Integrating Universal Design principles shouldn’t be a specific specialization, it should just be part of the design. And once you start on the drawing board, it’s easy to integrate these ideas. As far as green buildings and accessible buildings are concerned, both share the same goals of creating sustainable, inclusive, and healthy environments. Sustainability and Universal Design are branches of the same tree.”

This principle encapsulates Harsh’s holistic perspective on design.

“It’s a social responsibility,” he added. “Architects play a crucial role in shaping our society.”

 

To learn more about RHFAC Training and Tuition grants available visit RickHansen.com/Courses

Thanks to funding from the Government of British Columbia and Government of Ontario, residents of B.C. and residents of Ontario are eligible for tuition grants, along with people of disabilities located anywhere in Canada. To learn more, visit www.rickhansen.com/tuition-grants

This project is funded in part by the Government of Canada’s Sectorial Initiatives Program. The opinions and interpretations in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of Canada.