Last week’s ground-breaking on the two new residential colleges marks the beginning of a host of changes for Yale, in areas ranging from student body size to residential life. But it also represents the culmination of another, quieter change: the role of the Provost’s Office’s Facilities Access Group.
The Facilities Access Group, a subcommittee of the larger Provost Advisory Committee on Resources for Students and Employees with Disabilities, is tasked with assessing the accessibility of Yale’s current buildings and planning the accessibility of new ones. But in the past, its influence has been limited by late involvement in the design process. For example, although the group made several recommendations during the construction of Evans Hall that would have increased accessibility before the building’s 2014 opening, the suggestions came too late to be implemented, said Judy York, director of the Resource Office on Disabilities. Now, as Yale plans for the new residential colleges — in which every suite and entrance will be fully accessible to mobility-impaired students — the subcommittee says they feel they have more influence over the design process.
“It was because we were not involved early on that we are now involved early on,” York said. “[The construction of Evans Hall] was the catalyst for when we started saying, ‘We have to be involved before the plans seem to be finalized.’”
The initial design for Evans Hall left even the main entrance of the building inaccessible, calling for stairs to lead to the front door, said Glenn Weston-Murphy, an engineering design advisor within the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences who served on the Facilities Access Group for 10 years. He quit several years ago due to frustration with the limited influence of the committee, he said, and the plans for Evans Hall were some of the last that he reviewed.
Although the main entrance to Evans Hall is now accessible, Weston-Murphy said, other problems remain with the building’s accessibility. The inner courtyard, for example, can only be accessed by a step, except for a ramp at the far end of the courtyard.
Part of the conflict stemmed from a lack of communication between outside architects and designers, and internal project managers and review committees, Weston-Murphy said.
“If it’s done right, accessibility should be looked at seriously in the very early stages of schematic design,” he said. “What was happening was that we weren’t even seeing the drawings until much later in the design [process] … It became a nonproductive relationship, because you were almost in an adversarial mode when the designers would come.”
As a result, he said, he felt that the committee’s power to review was more “lip service” than a chance at real involvement.
York acknowledged Weston-Murphy’s concerns, adding that any construction process involves many stakeholders, and that architects often have to negotiate to create an environment that is acceptable to everyone.
But she emphasized that the committee’s role has changed since the construction of Evans Hall — in fact, the change is a direct result of the group’s involvement in the design process.
“Some changes have been made,” York said. “We are happier, and we do feel that we have a stronger voice.”
George Zdru, planning director for Yale Facilities, said that plans for new buildings are typically presented to the accessibility committee for review at the end of the preliminary design stage, “when the overall organization of the building’s design is understood.” Refinements can be made during the next stage, which is called design development.
Douglas Denes, senior architect planner and chair of the Facilities Access Group, invites architects involved in a given project to present to the subcommittee, which can then provide feedback at various stages in the process, according to School of Medicine associate professor Carl Baum, who also serves as chair of the Provost Advisory Committee.
Denes was not available for comment.
Overall, York expressed satisfaction with the growing influence of the subcommittee. It was involved early enough in the design process for the new residential colleges for several concerns they raised to be remedied, she said. Every suite within the new colleges will be fully accessible to mobility-impaired individuals, she added, whereas in the existing colleges, only certain suites are accessible, in part due to challenges associated with the entryway system. Though the new colleges will also include separate entryways, designers have incorporated the facilities — including elevators — necessary for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act’s 2010 Standards for Accessible Design.
“Our buildings were built so long ago, before this kind of [accessibility] code came out,” York said. “We now have the opportunity to do it right with the new buildings.”
The Provost Advisory Committee on Resources for Students and Employees with Disabilities also comprises subcommittees on Service, Technology Access and Education, Awareness and Action.