We design architecture for all: inclusive, barrier free and participatory

Doing Disability Differently: Vals Therme
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Archive for the ‘Rem koolhaas’ Category

Posted on: June 20th, 2015

Doing Disability Differently: Vals Therme

Last year Doing Disability Differently by Jos Boys was published. My sensory description of Vals Therme, from Greta’s point of view, was included, as well as a critique of our Ramp House. I am now working with Katie Lloyd Thomas on Jos Boy’s follow up reader: our chapter The Ramp House: Building Inclusivity, will explore the planning, building and inhabitation of the ramp house as an ongoing process of inclusivity.



Thea MacMillan – Experiencing Zumthor

 The way that Zumthor’s spaces are perceived: in Vals Therme, each space has been considered sensorially; the searing heat of the 40° bath reflected by burning red terracotta walls, which change from highly glazed to porous rough at the line where the water laps, contrasted by the cool turquoise water of the central pool and the sharp air rolling down from the surrounding mountains to lie on top of the outdoor pool. Guided by the continuity of the touch of the changing stone in each changing space; offering different sensory experiences, using contrast and heightened touch, hearing, and smell.

Perception: coming into the space from above, the sound is first, then the weight of the leather curtain pushed aside, followed by smell. For anyone disabled who has learnt to use their senses differently to complete pictures, this place offers many different clues. The spatial configuration of open plan and smaller contained spaces and the connections between them, gives a complex aural feedback for the visually impaired to construct the space in their minds.

Movement through the spaces, whilst not supportive of all wheelchair users, with its slow long flat steps, provides added layers of sensory experience for those who can climb them. As this almost offers the inclusive experience of moving through changing space, it seems a missed opportunity not to have a ramp.

Thea McMillan 11/09/13


“Ultimately, of course, the aim is redefine what constitutes the normal [] ‘

The principle of the ramp house was to design and build a family home for a little girl who is a wheelchair user, where the whole house enables her to lead a barrier free included life. We are often confronted with the physical barriers that the built environment presents; in our own home we were able to design a fully inclusive place; using a ramp to access all levels, provides an equality of space to us all. We have designed spaces along the ramp, connecting both horizontally and vertically, so that the experience of the house changes as it unfolds.

The difference that the ramp makes is in how the spaces are experienced; this is both linear and sectional, and the opportunities to look back or forward into other spaces. The ramp contributes both width and height to each of the different pausing places along the way. As we inhabit the house, we can see how this provides variation, complexity, and flexibility in the everyday use of the house, how many spaces can be used concurrently and how it reaches its potential when it is inhabited: movement around it, by foot or on wheels brings the experience to life.

For a child who cannot move around independently, the connectivity of the spaces becomes all the more important. If Greta is in the living room, there are six different spaces that we can be in and move between, and she is still able to see and hear us, and communicate with us.’

“here, movement through the space is not separated out as ‘accessible circulation’ but formally interwoven with both how family life is lived, and with the multiple registers through which we engage with the material world simultaneously. Greta is neither a special case nor an unconsidered ‘anyone’: she is just one of the members of the family; as she says herself, ‘I am just a very busy eight year old and like everyone else, I just need a place which allows me to get on with things'” Jos Boys, Doing Disability Differently, Routledge.

Inspirational Design: Scottish Government

Good to be included in Scottish Government’s inspirational designs webpage



a magazine you can’t get in the newsagents

Posted on: August 23rd, 2013

lifestyle ability cover small
Every three months a magazine called life style drops through our letterbox. You can’t buy this in the shops for love nor money, but is sent out to the 400,000 motability car owners. Each issue has at least one story of people who have taken their circumstances and used them to make things more accessible for others as well as themselves. Ian thought that they might want to know about our story so emailed them, and we were interviewed by a lovely journalist who understood our situation through her own experience. Since the magazine came out we have had a number of really lovely comments and enquiries, just reminding us how many people are in similar circumstances to ours, needing inclusive environments designed for them. It seems we are becoming a specialist practice without trying. lifestyle ability 

cottage pie

Posted on: May 4th, 2012

squirrel pie

Cottage Pie

Guest Blogger Ian McMillan writes:  Working on projects where the Net/ Gross efficiency of the floorplates and the extent of circulation versus usable space is paramount,  And having a ramp through the house, I was somewhat reluctant to crunch out the figures.  Our current house is very tight with space, but we’ve optimised it to 50% living accommodation, smaller bedrooms and a quirky ‘open plan’ bathroom  – and all in 72m2, which is below the 78m2 standard UK house size for a 3 bed house.  The new proposal, although 140m2, sounds absurdly huge but it’s just the size of a standard Danish family house.  Which is still well below the States and Australia.  So where is all this extra 62m2?

The figures below show that we’ve still kept the bedrooms at a standard size (but have carved the space away above them and introduced rooflights to make them feel brighter and more spacious), and like our current house we’ve tried to optimise the space for the living accommodation.  But rather than one single space, it’s fragmented into different levels which come off the various levels of the ramp.

Squirrel Cottage Areas m2                    UK Cottage Areas m2

Sleeping  (x3) 33.5 Sleeping  (x3) 31.0
Living Space 21.4 Living Space 14.0
Kitchen/ Eating 22 Kitchen/ Eating 12.5
Circulation 41.3 Circulation 8
Therapy 7 Therapy 0
Ancillary 4 Ancillary 1.2
Wetroom 5 Wetroom 4

Average Pie

The ramp itself is the biggest space user being 41.3m3 and accounting for 31% of the building, as opposed to the typical house where the stair and any corridors would account for 11%.  This is a big spatial investment, however as the ramp is integrated into the house (as opposed to being a ‘bolt on’), it will spatially become part of the living accommodation.  Saying that, It will be interesting to see how we physically use this sloped surface aside from its primary purpose of circulation!

Rem slope

rem slope 2