Housing is Access and Design with Armando Tobias and Steven Montgomery

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ISAAC: Hello, this is Isaac Haney-Owens, and you’re listening to the Leaders for Inclusive Community Podcast hosted by The Kelsey, covering topics related to housing and disability. Welcome. Thanks for listening. Each episode, I’ll meet with different community leaders to learn about what they do and ask them questions about how their work can make housing and communities more inclusive for people with disabilities. 

[chill theme music starts]

ARMANDO: I think thoughtful design decisions, especially with our expertise to remove barriers, really increases the enjoyment of the built environment by people. That’s important. 

ISAAC: Today, we’re interviewing Steven Montgomery and Armando Tobias of LCM Architects. Our topic today is focused on housing, access, and design. Let’s dive in! 

[music slowly fades out] 

So, Armando, what do you do? 

ARMANDO: Well, I am a Project Manager at LCM Architects. Also, I’ve been there about 18 years. I do both some of the accessibility consulting with a specialization in universal design and also conventional architecture, design, and construction. In the past few years, I’ve developed an affinity for designing and seeing projects that were built under the principles of universal design from start to finish. 

ISAAC: Steven, what do you do? 

STEVEN: I’m Steven Montgomery, also with LCM Architects, also a licensed architect. And my prior experience had been with primarily with senior, special needs, and affordable housing. And that was for probably the past 20 years. And then I’ve been with LCM Architects for three years now in the role of Fair Housing Accessibility Specialist. So, we review plans for developers and other architects for compliance with Fair Housing specifically. 

ISAAC: That sounds great that you’re doing compliance with Fair Housing because everyone deserves housing that’s accessible to them. 

STEVEN: Absolutely. [chuckles]

ISAAC: So, how does construction come into play with designing housing? Meaning the construction company that builds the housing? 

ARMANDO: Well, they typically have to engage an architect or a designer at some point, whether it’s a conventional delivery method where a constructor hires an architect, or sometimes sort of the same company: the architecture and the construction have two different branches within the same company. But in either situation, it’s always the designer that drives the design of the final product. 

STEVEN: And again, I would add to that a little bit from my experience. A lot of times we have the contractor onboard at the beginning of the process rather than a bidding process between competing contractors. So, we might interview a number of contractors and have discussions with them and then select one based on their experience and their suitability for a specific project. This is especially true for publicly-funded projects. And I’ve worked on a fair number of those, where the end product was affordable housing specifically, or grant money was being provided to fund the project. And that way, we were able to bring them on as part of the design team and have ongoing pricing that would occur throughout the project. So, as different things are being considered, we could get real-time pricing, and that way we could stay on budget. And so, that’s considered a negotiated contract process. 

ISAAC: For you, Armando, what is universal design? What are the principles of universal design? 

ARMANDO: Sure. Universal design is a term. Actually, it goes back to the 1970s. It was developed by a gentleman by the name of Rod Mace. He himself was an architect, he was an educator, and he was also disabled. He used the wheelchair. Through his practice and his teachings, he developed seven concepts that he felt, when applied to the built environment, would make the built environment friendly, user-friendly to everyone, regardless of physical or cognitive ability. So, he had seven concepts, seven principles. We may not have time here to go into full detail, but just to give you a brief overview. 

There was one about equitable use, which was really the heart of the matter: just the idea that all elements of a space should be usable by everyone in the same way. He believed in flexible use and intuitive use so that people have choices, and they don’t have to think much about how to use a space. They can just use it. He talked about perceptible information: making sure signs are big enough. He talked about tolerance for error in just admitting that things don’t always go as planned. That there has to be some wiggle room. Otherwise, things would not be buildable. He talked about low physical effort. So, anything that has a repetitive motion like opening a door should be designed in such a way that it takes the least amount of physical effort to do. And then he talked about clearances for approaching use. And most of those clearances have evolved over time into what is now modern accessibility compliance code. So, yeah. So, those were the seven principles. 

ISAAC: So, this question is for you, Steven: what are reasonable and appropriate solutions to accessibility issues? 

STEVEN: OK. So, I think that a lot of people refer to accessibility issues as ADA. And the Americans with Disabilities Act is very important, and it helped to establish a national baseline for compliance. But what a lot of people don’t know is that ADA doesn’t typically apply to housing. There’s Fair Housing Act, which applies to housing. And then ADA, the 2010 ADA standards for accessible design actually apply to housing that is publicly funded. So, if there’s government funding involved, ADA does kick in. But the term has become synonymous and interchangeable with accessibility. But the codes, so ADA, there’s a standard that most building codes reference called ANSI, and it establishes the physical criteria for compliance with accessibility concerns. And then the scoping for that is generally written into the building codes, which are adopted locally. And then Fair Housing established a minimal level of compliance for all housing. Typically, if it has four or more units in a building and if it has an elevator, all of the units are covered. If it’s a low-rise building, then it’s just the ground floor units that are covered. So, those all establish a minimum level of compliance for accessibility. 

But then there’s always the option to go above and beyond. What we find is most developers, most owners aren’t interested in going above and beyond unless they have a compelling reason. Often that comes through when we have, I would say, mission-driven clients. So, people that have a specific agenda related to accessibility, then those people often will be open to other ideas that go above and beyond the baseline. 

ISAAC: So, this question is for both of you. Why did you decide to go into the field of accessible design? 

ARMANDO: You know, I think generally speaking, as architects, when you start out, you don’t really know where your career will take you. And you go with the ebb and flow of market, and you discover your own interests. For me, it was an evolution. I think when I started out in the workplace, I worked for architects, and I worked on projects that really focused on community-based organizations, not-for-profits, people that were traditionally underrepresented, underserved. And it was very satisfying to work on those types of projects and help a population that didn’t always get help. And then as I moved through my career, I ended up working on affordable housing, which was rewarding for its own merits. And then when I got to LCM, I mean they have, at the heart of LCM’s founding mission, this prevalence for accessible design and good design that favors everybody regardless of physical ability. And it really spoke to me. And it’s been fun. It’s been a fun trip with LCM making a difference directly to people who really need it. 

STEVEN: And like Armando, I would say that my interest in accessibility kind of found me. My experience had been with a lot of not-for-profits and senior, special needs, and affordable housing in particular. And because of whether it was the mission-driven clients that I worked with or the specific funding programs that necessitated various accessibility compliance, what I found is I received that exposure throughout the process of my career. And it kind of, it aligned with my kind of personal beliefs. And so, when I made the move to LCM, I felt right at home. Because I felt like this is a group that understands the needs that are out there in the world to make a more just and equitable built environment for everyone. And that aligned with what I believed personally and had been, it sort of validated my prior work experience. And so, it was a very, very kind of comfortable homecoming coming to LCM. 

And I like the fact that we review plans for projects all over the United States, and we’re able to contribute to that improved built environment. We’re not doing the design, but we do comment on it, so that the architects and developers can get it right. And I think that’s very important because it builds in that necessary flexibility that is one of those components of universal or inclusive design, where there’s some flexibility that’s built in. And that’s typically the way Fair Housing approaches the design of new construction. 

ISAAC: So, this question is for you, Steven: what is the best part about designing accessible housing? 

STEVEN: [sighs] I mean, for me, there’s definitely a personal satisfaction that we are improving the built environment. And when universal design or accessible design is incorporated into housing in particular, I feel like you are giving the future residents of that space an enhanced level of independence. And with that comes personal dignity. And I think in the global picture, I feel like housing is kind of a human right. And by providing that for everyone, it just leads to a more just and equitable world. So, that’s very satisfying, knowing that people not only have shelter in the most basic sense, but it’s a supportive sort of space. So, it helps them to lead healthier, happier, more productive lives. And I can’t think of anything better than that. 

ISAAC: This question is for both of you: how does design benefit everyone? 

ARMANDO: In the most basic sense, the built environment—which could be anything from an eating utensil to a 20-story skyrise—the built environment’s the primary way in which we all interact with the world all around us. It affects every moment at home, at work, at play, everywhere in between. So, I think thoughtful design decisions, especially with our expertise to remove barriers, really increases the enjoyment of the built environment by people. And that’s important. I don’t think everybody, most people don’t think on a daily basis how they interact with their environment. But if you stop and you think about it, it’s every moment of every day. And so, that’s why it’s important. 

STEVEN: I think it’s important to remember that people with disabilities, it’s a spectrum, and it’s always changing. Because a person who is otherwise healthy can be in an accident, or something can happen that causes them, even if it’s temporary, to be disabled short-term. And so, that’s a very high percentage of the American population that falls under that category. And so, I think a lot of times, able-bodied individuals don’t recognize everything that is being built into the environment. But when they have a setback and suddenly are now in the disabled category, they appreciate all of the aspects that have been incorporated into the environment, whether by code or by choice. And so, I think that provides that additional insight. Because like Armando said, a lot of times, this stuff isn’t recognized, but when you need it, suddenly it’s all, you notice it everywhere. And I think that’s critical. 

ISAAC: This question is for you, Steven: how do you include people with disabilities when doing design? 

STEVEN: So, typically, and it varies from project to project because sometimes you have access to the end users, and sometimes you don’t. I’ve worked on projects where we knew that it was going to be affordable housing that would be rental, but it would be based on income. And so, it could be anyone from no income at all to a percentage of the median average income in a specific neighborhood. But we didn’t know who those people were yet. And so, we were, in some ways, designing in a vacuum. Evidence-based design and then the focus groups and surveys are great ways to gather information from both tenants and staff if a building has staff. 

ISAAC: This question is for both you: what does it take to build accessible housing? 

ARMANDO: Well, you need a good funding. That’s probably the number one thing. But more importantly, I think you need a good team. You need good collaboration among all the members. As designers, we really feed off of the feedback from our clients. And some of the more successful projects that we’ve had, we’ve involved the builders up front. Because when they see what’s happening, when they understand the intent of the various design decisions that get made, it’s an easier sell. They can understand that sometimes we’re not really asking for a premium. We’re just asking them to do things just slightly different than the way they typically do it. And I think that’s important because there’s a stigma that making projects highly accessible is a premium. And it doesn’t have to be. It could be, depending on how you design it, but it doesn’t have to be. We advocate for off-the-shelf construction, for thoughtful choices. And what we find is when you use just typical standard construction, but with an extra ounce of thought, it creates universally-designed spaces and user-friendly spaces that can be done in just about the same cost as anything else. And the sooner we can make a builder and a client understand that, the better the chance for success at a later time. So, I think that would be my take on that. 

STEVEN: And I was going to say my short answer would be, you know, what does it take to build accessible housing? I would say desire and funding. So, the desire, I think, is more from the owner’s side. And if that’s really what they want and if that is their mission, then it can be achieved very easily. 

ISAAC: So, last question for both of you: what is human-centered design? How can human-centered design help make communities better? 

ARMANDO: Well, I think that term is an extension of universal design and really the desire to create environments that are welcoming to everybody. Whereas universal design really deals with physical disabilities and cognitive as well. I think we’ve seen it. We’ve seen over the past few years that definition kind of grow to become inclusive design to refer to every gender or age or size or height, excuse me. So, I think it’s an evolution of just the awareness as a society, I think, as we move forward, that everybody needs to be served the same way. And if you can focus it on a person’s enjoyment and a person’s choices, I think you increase the chances that people will feel independence. And when people feel independent, they have a higher degree of dignity. Which I think it’s everybody, that’s a human right, and everybody should have that. And as much as we can provide it through design, we do, and we can. 

STEVEN: And I think for me, with my senior experience, I was involved with a group called Pioneer Network, and they advocate for what they call person-directed care. So, it’s similar to this concept of human-centered design. Because what it’s doing is it’s giving a voice to those residents, and it’s allowing them to take charge of how they are cared for. And I think in the global way of human-centered design, it’s giving a voice to those residents and the end users and allowing them to have a say in, here are my needs. How can I have a space that supports those needs? 

ISAAC: So, what would you like to say for people with disabilities who wanna start advocating for more affordable housing for folks with disabilities? 

ARMANDO: My advice would be to reach out, to develop your network, and to reach out to folks like us that have a stake and skin in the game, so to speak, and have been doing this for a long time so you can learn the basics, the building blocks of what it would take to build highly-accessible housing, highly-accessible anything. I think there’s a lot of experience out there, but not just LCM. There’s a lot of good folks throughout the world that have done this. But understand you’re not alone. And if you find the right support, you will eventually realize whatever dream you have for your facility, whether it’s a housing development or maybe a not-for-profit or whatever the case may be. I think perseverance, it pays. And you need to have it upfront, and you have to have it all the way through construction whenever that finally comes. [music slowly fades in and plays until the end]

STEVEN: Right. And I think from the standpoint of becoming familiar with the baselines, so the Fair Housing, the ADA, the ANSI standard, a good resource is the Fair Housing First website. If you can get a good handle on what is required and then what your needs are and how those might exceed what the requirements are, then you’re that much more ahead because you’re more informed. And information is always a powerful tool. 

ISAAC: Thanks for listening. For more information on The Kelsey or to check out more of my podcast episodes, visit TheKelsey.org. If you have a topic you’d like me to explore or a person to interview, email me at Isaac@TheKelsey.org. Goodbye.