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Why do we need empathy in accessible architecture?

“Empathy is an important skill for architects. Empathy enables us to design better accessible designs,” says Marta Bordas, who is defending her doctoral dissertation on the subject in February.

It is true that we cannot deny the existence of abundant literature concerning how to design accessible built environments, but the fact is that the quality of designs in respect to accessibility is doubtful on many occasions. Many accessible solutions are not designs meant for all, but just mere differentiated ‘designs for the disabled’ that do not form a part of the ‘normal’ environment as a whole. Consequently, non-disabled people rarely use these solutions, even when they are more practical, because they do not identify themselves with such segregated and stigmatized ‘designs for the disabled’.

“In this respect, accessibility needs to evolve from the current simplistic view of barrier-free environments towards a more inclusive approach,” says Marta Bordas.

According to Bordas, accessibility should be understood as awareness of higher existential needs, such as pleasantness and identity. That is, accessibility must take into consideration the ways in which we perceive and experience the built environment.

“This is crucial for the psychological wellbeing of the users. We all need to belong, to feel like a part of and not separated from society and our environment. We need a sense of normality,” Bordas says.

This is why her dissertation defends the necessity of an empathic approach. Empathy is essential to satisfy the ‘supra-functional needs’, or those social, emotional, spiritual, aspirational, and cultural aspects that are equally relevant to all of us. Herein lies the real pleasure, the sense of wellbeing and perception of a good life.

One might assume that the capacity of empathy is innate, but there is evidence that empathy is most likely to emerge among people experiencing similar circumstances.

“It is not at all superfluous to practice exercises for triggering empathy among architecture students. If we succeed in designing empathic accessible designs, we will be looking at long-term designs that are able to healthily support needs that cover a human lifespan – sustainable designs which provide quality of life.”

“In addition, some standardized behaviours and prejudices against people with disabilities will simultaneously be defeated. With empathy, we will therefore achieve architecture that ensures sustainability and social justice.”

Public defence of doctoral dissertation on Friday, 10 February

MSc (Tech) Marta Bordas Eddy’s doctoral dissertation in the field of architecture, entitled Universal Accessibility: On the need of an empathy-based architecture, will be publicly examined at the Faculty of Business and Built Environment of Tampere University of Technology (TUT) in room RG202 in the Rakennustalo building (address: Korkeakoulunkatu 5, 33720 Tampere, Finland) at 13:00 on Friday, 10 February 2017.

The opponent will be Design researcher Susanne Jacobson, doctorated at the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Helsinki. Professor Markku Hedman from the School of Architecture at TUT will act as Chairman.

Marta Bordas Eddy (35) comes from Barcelona, Spain, and works as a freelance researcher and architect.

The dissertation is available online: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-15-3891-9

Further information:  Marta Bordas Eddy, tel. +34 630 710 235,

News submitted by: Sanna Kähkönen
Keywords: science and research, architecture