Putting People at the Heart of Inclusive Design

In this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show, Toby talks to Ed Warner from Motionspot and discusses the importance of thinking holistically and intersectionally about inclusive design and its benefits for people and businesses.

Ed Warner is the co-founder and chief executive of Motionspot, a leading inclusive design consultancy. Motionspot works with some interesting clients and is doing some great projects around inclusive design. Before we dived into the main questions, I asked Ed to give a bit more of an introduction to himself and what Motionspot is all about.

‘I’m Ed Warner, co-founder and CEO of the inclusive design business Motionspot. I set the business up 11 years ago now after the experience of an old school friend of mine and our co-founder, James Taylor, who was paralysed in a diving accident aged 25. James spent eight months in Stoke Mandeville Hospital before returning to his apartment in Battersea, South London to live his life as an independent wheelchair user. Except he found that his once beautiful home had turned into something that resembled a clinical care home. It was his experience of his environment and the products around him that inspired me to leave my job and inspired him to help and support the launch of a business that really looks at the design of the built environment in a different way.

Fast forward 11 years, we’re now working with businesses across the UK, but also around the world to help them understand how to design beautiful, accessible, and inclusive buildings and spaces for everybody.’

I know when I talk to organisations about inclusive design or accessibility, their mind usually immediately goes to thinking, ‘Do we have ramps for wheelchair users or lifts?’ Or if you’re lucky, they might be talking about induction loops at the reception desk. The thing is inclusive design and accessibility are a lot broader than that. I asked Ed, ‘When it comes to inclusive design, why do we need to think more holistically beyond physical accessibility?’

‘Well, firstly, inclusive design is all about removing the barriers that cause undue stress and separation for people within a building or a space. Traditionally, buildings and spaces have been designed to suit minimum standards of building regulations. Whether that be in the UK or US or anywhere around the world, there are local building codes that designers and developers need to follow.’ The problem with those building codes is many of them were written as long as ten years ago now and those codes and regulations mostly focus on design for physical disability, in particular wheelchair users. But, in reality, only 8% of disabled people are wheelchair users.

So, the conversations we have with our clients are around how do you design for the 8%, which is where so many of the conversations around design have tended to be, as you say, ramps and lifts at wheelchair accessible toilets. But also, how do you design for the 92% of people who may have another physical cognitive sensory need? Design for neurodiversity is a massive driver of our conversations with clients at the moment, as many more people are disclosing conditions that they weren’t previously telling their employers about. But inclusive design is not just about design for disability, it’s also considering all protected characteristics.

So those conversations we have with clients around how can you make your office accessible for disabled employees are also for someone of different faith, ethnic background, culture, age, and gender. This is thinking about inclusive design as being good design for everybody. Our main ethos is you shouldn’t have an accessible or inclusive area and a non-accessible or inclusive area. This should just run through everything a business does when thinking about their built environment.’

I used to work in digital accessibility at the BBC. One of our design principles was that if you create a digital experience for disabled users, people with cognitive impairments, or if you think about the outlier case studies, you actually end up making the product better overall for everybody.

Ed agreed saying, ‘You’re absolutely right that you can’t look at one particular group, or design for a certain group of people in isolation. People represent many different needs within different groups and thinking about intersectionality within the built environment is a really key consideration when designing inclusive environments.’

I know that Motionspot works with some great clients and has done some fascinating projects. One of these was with Barclays and I asked Ed to tell me more about that project.

‘The work we’ve done with Barclays has been groundbreaking in workplace design. Barclays engaged Motionspot as inclusive design consultants on a new 500,000 square foot campus in Glasgow. They engaged us initially because they were recruiting several individuals into very technical roles who were neurodivergent, and they realised they wanted to ensure that they designed the office appropriately for neurodivergent staff.

But when we started to have the conversation, it connected to what we were just saying about intersectionality in that you can’t just design an area of the office for neurodivergence, you’ve got to consider other elements within that as well. So, we were engaged at the early stages to help, and set the inclusive design strategy for that development and then work alongside Barclays and their architect Gensler, as well as a number of other interior designers that were responsible for the fit-out, to provide advice at all stages of the design process. It wasn’t just about making sure the layout of the building was right and the circulation space was right, but it was the granular detail of the fixtures and finishes that made such a difference when it came to inclusive design.

Small things like thinking about transition spaces in their main reception area. If people are coming into the building, lots of people want time to be able to just compose themselves before going and having a conversation at the reception desk. So having the necessary space, within their reception lobby for an area of seating, for people to recalibrate before going and having that conversation. As you say, making sure that reception desks not only have hearing loops but have the necessary heights of reception desk for someone who may be a wheelchair user or shorter in stature. And then principles like colour contrast, making sure floors and walls contrast sufficiently. If someone has a visual impairment, they’re able to define where they are in the space. Looking at introducing lots of biophilia, planting and natural materials, which is particularly good for autistic employees as an example. Lots of small design principles like a design of quiet spaces, multi-faith rooms, and separating halal and kosher food within staff kitchenettes. Thinking about principles like lighting and acoustics and materiality all come together to design a more inclusive and accessible environment for staff and visitors at Barclays.

What’s really interesting about that particular project is they did a return-on-investment case study twelve months after completing the project, and they found that for every one pound they spent on inclusive design, saved them one hundred pounds in later stage workplace adjustments. This makes a powerful case study to say, “If you’re just thinking about this at the right stage, it’s not just the right thing to do for your people, but it’s financially beneficial too.”

If it’s considered from the outset in terms of the overall scale of the development and the cost associated with development, it just doesn’t even feature as a line item. Where inclusive design gets more expensive is when you’re trying to retrofit adaptations and improvements within spaces after they’re built. It’s all about considering it the very earliest stages.’

Presumably, if inclusive design is considered from the outset of the project, it’s a much more elegant solution than trying to retrofit something. If you’re just trying to wedge something on at the end, it’s going to stick out and look ugly. Whereas if you can think about how accessibility can be designed in from the beginning, you can come up with a much more beautiful design, I imagine.

‘We always say the best inclusive design is the design that you don’t necessarily see or realise, it’s just embedded in the structure of the building or space. It’s those retrofits and those last-minute thoughts and actions that do stick out and do tend to be the more medical-looking, second-best facilities. We’ve got an amazing design community. They’re hugely creative. It’s about empowering the designers who are creating these spaces to think about who they’re designing for, think about the impact of their design and to make sure that those spaces are as beautiful as any other.’

What Ed said reminded me of a nice hotel in London I stayed in that had just been refurbished. In the accessible bedroom, and in the bathroom, the grab rails were folded up and they blended into the wall. It looked like a nice chrome strip in the wall. If you did need the grab rails, you could pull them down. But otherwise, they were blended into the design of the bathroom.

I thought it was a lovely environment because the majority of accessible bathrooms in the hotels are ugly. They’re using ugly plastic lino flooring, cheap looking white plastic grab rails. I mean, it’s like staying in a hospital rather than staying in a hotel. Speaking of hotels, Hotel Brooklyn, somewhere I’ve stayed before, is one of Motionspot’s other clients. They’ve got a hotel in Manchester and recently opened a hotel in Leicester. I may be wrong but I think they are building another hotel in Liverpool.

Ed confirmed Hotel Brooklyn has hotels in Manchester and Leicester, with a new hotel being planned in the future in Liverpool. He added, ‘The Hotel Brooklyn is a great example of a hotel operator that has really tried to push the boundaries when it comes to thinking about accessible design. We were given an amazing brief back in 2017, from Robin Shepherd, who is chairman of Bespoke Hotels, to redefine the experience of disabled guests within Hotel Brooklyn. He was very aware the design of accessible rooms has just always been so second best in the hospitality industry. So, with Hotel Brooklyn interior designer and architects we set about to really look at how we could do something very different when designing and the hotel in Manchester. It’s a 190-bedroom hotel and 18 of the bedrooms are accessible with features like interconnecting rooms, which are really important for disabled people who are travelling with carers and want those individuals to be close, but not in the same room.

There’s so much amazing product design going on at the moment in this space. Design features like beautiful open plan, wet rooms, bathrooms, with the types of fixtures and fittings you’ve just described in the hotel you stayed at in London, Toby. It’s about blending the right collection of products together to deliver that accessibility, but also the function that disabled people need within those bathrooms.

Integrating clever technology like the ability to control curtains and lighting and heating and other controls, all from one point by the bed. We designed out the red pull cord alarm system, which is in all accessible bathrooms and should also be in accessible hotel bedrooms and designed in BSA 300 compliant system of push buttons that are mounted at the same heights as the red bangles at 900 and 100 millimetres from the floor.

Two of the rooms had an amazing ceiling track hoist feature, and there are very few hotels in the UK that have ceiling track hoists because they’re quite medical-looking in their appearance, and hotel owners find it very difficult selling those rooms to guests who don’t require a hoist. So, what we did was we recessed the ceiling track hoist into the ceiling, and we made a lighting detail out of that hoist track, and we hid the hoist motor within a bit of joinery.

At the press of a button, this hoist comes out and is able to pivot someone from the bed into a wheelchair or mobile shower commode. Our co-founder James is six foot four, his wife is five foot three, and he needs that ability, the hoist, to be able to get him out of bed into a wheelchair as do many other people, as you know. It’s just opened up the opportunity for so many people to enjoy a hotel experience in an environment and setting that is as high class as any other of the rooms in that hotel.

Similar to Barclays, Hotel Brooklyn also looked at the financials around what accessibility meant to them from a bottom-line perspective, and amazingly, they found that the 18 accessible rooms were the most popular of all the 190 rooms in the hotel. Those rooms delivered them an additional 220,000 pounds of profit in the first year of trading. Within that, I think there was an additional 85,000 pounds of event revenue from events that were organized by the disability industry. So, it just goes to show, again, this is financially the right thing to do, as well as socially and morally being the right thing to do.’

I think I’m within those statistics Ed quoted. The reason I know Hotel Brooklyn is because that’s the hotel that I use when I’m organising client events and training in Manchester. It’s because of the accessibility of the hotel, for any clients that need an accessible room, but also just the general inclusivity of the hotel experience from the training that the staff have been through in terms of how they welcome guests and things like that. It’s just a much more inclusive experience and they’re really leading the way.

I know that post-pandemic, a lot of organisations have been refurbishing, relocating, downsizing, and redesigning their workplaces because the way that we work has changed post-COVID-19. I asked Ed what his advice would be to a chief people officer if they are doing a refurb, relocating people, reducing their office footprint or they’re redesigning their workspaces in any way.

‘I think the advice that I’d give first is to understand the challenges of your people. The best companies out there are those that listen to the needs of employees and visitors to their spaces and understand some of the challenges within the built environment. There are some really successful examples of employee resource groups who are coming together to be able to give their feedback on different challenges within workplaces. Even if you’re a smaller business size and you don’t have ERGs, just being able to listen to those voices is the first recommendation I’d give.

The second piece of advice is to look at engaging specialist advice at the earliest stage. We’ve heard already how important it is to bring inclusive design at that early stage to help set the inclusive design strategy of that refurbishment or a new build or a move that’s being made. And when I say inclusive design strategy, it doesn’t have to be a hugely overwhelming project. There are so many quick wins that can be made at little to no cost within workplaces that will make such a fundamental difference to your staff and visitors. And then making sure that throughout the design and build process, there is a specialist that we call an inclusive design guardian role. So, if decisions are being made in the design team or contractors are making decisions on site, you’ve at least got someone there who is able to influence in the right way and question whether some of the design changes that are being made are going to be appropriate and suit the needs of your staff.

As you mentioned with Hotel Brooklyn, we always say a building is only as accessible as the people who operate it. Make sure that once your building is ready and your staff are ready to move in, the people who are operating these spaces are aware of the inclusive design features that have been designed in because it’s only through that communication process that you’re going to create the right accessible and inclusive space.’

I asked Ed if there are any free resources from Motionspot he could signpost people to that would support them on their inclusive design journey.

‘There’s a really good white paper download about inclusive design principles on the Motionspot website. It gives an introduction to inclusive design and the types of high level principles to be considered. There’s also a great publication that Motionspot were involved in co-authoring called the RIBA Inclusive Design Overlay, which was published in 2023. That is a guide for all clients, architects, developers, asset managers and project managers to encourage them to think about inclusive design at all stages.’

Before we wrapped up our conversation, I posed my final question to Ed, ‘What does inclusive growth mean for you?’

‘For me, inclusive growth is all about creating environments that are accessible, safe, and welcoming for everybody. Where we can create a sense of belonging within the built environment, ensuring that everybody can bring their best to work at any time.’

Putting People at the Heart of Inclusive Design - Mildon