By now you have probably read an article or two in the new "Accessible Experts" series here at the Accessible Insights Blog. Today’s profile features Marcela Abadi Rhoads, who is an architect specializing in universal design, creating barrier-free spaces for people from all walks of life. Here’s your chance to learn some ways to make any space an accessible space.
Marcela was born in Panama City Panama and moved to Dallas, Texas as a child. She attended the University of Texas where she received a degree in architecture. After working with several architects, she became interested in accessibility and pursued additional education to become a registered accessibility specialist (RAS). Her goal was to start her own architectural and consulting firm, believing that this part of architecture was an important part. "At the time that I got registered I got married and when my children were born, I decided to start my own firm." Marcela adds, "I focus on the commercial part of architecture which includes the consulting and teaching of our professionals and building owners all about the ADA and how they must apply it to their designs. My firm has grown steadily every year and I was recently asked to write a book.”"
Intrigued by Marcela’s expertise, I asked her for an interview.
LL: What was it about architecture in particular that interested you as a vocation?
MAR: As far as I can remember I always wanted to be an architect. I’m not sure when I was a little girl what it probably meant, but that is what I knew I wanted to do. I grew up watching my Uncle, who owned his own construction company, build many buildings. I also saw my grandmother, after all her kids had grown and out of the house, go to school to become an interior designer. I saw her also doing her school projects with awe. And my cousins were also in the same way wanting to be architects. I also always loved to draw and thought I was pretty good in math. So the combination of my influences and my talents led me to the road I took in my profession.
LL: Yours is a male dominated field, is it not? How has being a woman in this field posed challenges for you?
MAR: This is a male dominated field indeed. I am not only a woman, but I’m short and look young, and live in the South to boot. So it was not easy to fit in with all the men in my field. They didn’t take me seriously right away. I had to really try harder to be noticed, or even to be appreciated. Since I went to a high end design school, if I was not the best, I shouldn’t even be in the program….Professors discouraged me from continuing. They thought I should go to interior design school instead. They also didn’t see any potential beyond the shallowness of design. Architecture, as I later found out, has many layers and roles we as architects can play. I later discovered my love of people was much higher than my love of design. And thus my career developed into more of a Principal who deals with clients and trains them, rather than the designer who only interacts with the computer. I think I have earned my peers respect, but it did take me a while longer to be accepted because I wasn’t one of the guys.
LL: What was it about accessibility in particular that inspired you to focus on this niche of your business?
MAR: It might have been that living in Panama with my disabled grandmother who used a wheelchair for all my life, and seeing how difficult life with architectural barriers was for her, that when I learned more about the ADA and how freeing it is, I wanted to be a part of it. Initially it seemed to be a way to stay home with my kids as I reviewed drawings and became a consultant. But the more I did it, the more I realized how important it is and that I could make a difference. I really enjoy that part of the ‘niche.
LL: For our readers, can you define "Universal Design" and other specialty terms associated with your industry?
MAR: The term Universal Design has to do with not only designing for wheelchair access, but making a space usable for everyone. For example, making spaces larger and more open can help not only people in wheelchairs, but other mobility devices. Counters that are lower can help people in wheelchairs but also people that are shorter than average. There are also hardware like door levers instead of knobs that help people with arthritis or people in wheelchairs who don’t have the use of their hands. There may be a door way that if the frame is painted a darker color than the wall or door, then a person with low vision can detect the doorway in an easier way. There are many things that able-bodied people take for granted and the little things that can make a big difference to a universal population, and it does not affect the look of the space, but it enhances the experience.
LL: Have you ever encountered resistance to the idea of focusing on accessibility?
MAR: Recently I had a conversation with a client who happens to be a landlord. They travel to Europe all the time, and said that over there they just get used to the small bathrooms, and no access and nobody complains. He said we in this country go overboard. They said that we don’t take care of our bodies and that is why there are more disabled people here. I could have slapped him (with my book that he had just purchased), but I much rather explain it and teach it away. It is a big challenge. The lack of knowledge and awareness is so vast that it frustrates me sometimes. I also went to the AIA convention recently and there was only ONE accessibility seminar. All the others were about sustainability. What good is a building that lasts 100 years and does not pollute the environment, if the disabled community can’t get into it? Don’t get me started!
LL: What do you see trending in your field? Do you see more of your colleagues embracing the need for design accommodations?
MAR: Right now, the trend in my field is more about sustainable and green concepts. There is a small movement for designing for the aging which incorporates the Universal design concept and Aging in Place, but it seems to be a small number. Hopefully as it catches on, it will become broader.
LL: Do you find that you have to sacrifice any aspect of design integrity or function or esthetics in order to make a structure accessible?
MAR: Good designers will not sacrifice one inch of design integrity, aesthetics or function. One of our masters, Mies Van De Rohe, stated "Form Follows Function." We are taught to design for the function and a good architect will take the challenge of access and make a beautiful space. The Wiley Theater in Dallas Texas designed by Rem Koolhaas has a gorgeous ramp system which takes the patrons down a steep hill to the entrance below. It is so beautiful; you forget that it is a ramp. Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim Museum with one long ramp which everyone enjoys using to go around the exhibit. You don’t have to make things look industrial and ugly to be accessible. As problem solvers it is a charge we should embrace.
LL: Many may think that making these kinds of in-home alterations can mean unsightly or institutional-looking additions. Are there ways to create beauty as well as access and function?
MAR: Who doesn’t like a larger bathroom and kitchen? Making things more accessible and universal really should enhance a space. The idea is not to get intimidated by the concept of “universal” design or “accessibility”. It is a way to make a space better for everyone. Most designers that are good at what they do will always find ways to make things more pleasing and functional. As we discussed earlier there are companies that are starting to understand that things that are made for the disabled people do not have to be ugly and institutional. Great Grabz has a variety of grab bars that anyone would love to have in their bathrooms. There are cabinet makers who invented a cabinet with a pull out base which becomes a bench and creates a knee space. So a wheel chair user can pull it out easily and use the sink via the knee space, but an able body person can pull it out and use it as a seat. And it looks great. There are other design solutions out there, so my advice is to partner up with an architect or interior designer who is familiar with accessibility and they will guide you.
LL: Do you have any tips for people at home who are considering a remodel to accommodate the needs of a loved one who has a disability? Any "DIY tips to offer?
MAR: I am not a “DIY” kind of person. I much rather pay someone to do it for me. However, if you want to do it yourself, think about what barriers are present in the home. Typically it is the front door with steps or high threshold, so creating a ramp might be the right way to approach it. There are some pre-fabricated ramps that you can install, or you can have one designed and attempt to do it yourself. But you can also install (easily, I’ve been told) upper cabinets that pull down to a lower level. They are by www.cornicecabinet.comFor the most part; try to find projects that will be useful and not get overwhelmed with all the one’s that need to be done. Also, some might be more difficult to do yourself, like widening a doorway, but things like putting up grab bars or changing door knobs to levers might be easier.
LL: Tell our readers about your book.
MAR: Thank you for asking! I am very proud of the book. It is called The ADA Companion Guide and it was published by John Wiley and Sons. It is all about the new changes to the ADA design guidelines. After the ADA was passed into law in 1990, the design guidelines were published in 1991. Then they changed after many people gave their feedback and comments. In July of this year is when they passed the new version. My book has the new rules and pictures, commentary all about the way the accessibility rules affect the built environment. Hopefully it will be useful and make things more clear and understandable. You can buy at my web site http://www.abadiaccess.com or Wiley.com or even on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble online. If you want to go to the Brick and Mortar store, I’m sure they can even order it for you.
LL: Is your book for anyone, or mainly pros in your industry?
MAR: The book is more for professionals and builders. It is a technical book with explanations and examples on how to apply the standards. The book will help architects, interior designers and facilities managers who deal with the design and construction of their facilities. It will also help firms that work on Federal projects, and even federal court rooms and court houses. But it will also help the builders, building owners and tenants of buildings that will need to be familiar with the guidelines so that they will make sure they are adhering with the law. Even lawyers and students could use it for their edification.
LL: What else would you like readers to know?
MAR: I love to help and make things easier for the building industry. I am a huge advocate of the disabled community, but since I’m also an architect I see things both ways. I can typically brainstorm on difficult conditions to find solutions to make things accessible. I am available to answer questions about the new rules.
To contact Marcela for consulting or to request a presentation, you can find her on the web on social media:
Facebook: Abadi Accessibility News or ADA Companion Guide
Linked In: Abadi Accessibility News group
You can read her blog at: abadiaccess.blogspot.com
Web site: abadiaccess.com:
Or, via email at email@example.com
Thanks for reading, and check back soon for another interview with a new accessible expert.