Difficulties in moving around due to ageing, handicap or injury are physical problems that know no boundaries. Around the world, public buildings now have to provide access for people who suffer impaired movement. Yet there has been little uniform strategy in building design and construction to allow for this, until the European Union (EU)-funded research project POLIS.
The POLIS research team came up with a working decision-support tool that enabled building designers and construction engineers to include an accessibility element in their designs and projects. Basically a software system, POLIS helps designers and engineers check their designs against international best practices in building access, as well as the international regulations (e.g. EU, United Nations) on providing mobility within the urban environment. The system was tested and case studies were produced on buildings in Spain, UK, Italy, Greece and Israel.
POLIS ended in 2006. However, the project results have not been forgotten. The POLIS system has gone on to become an established software tool which is used regularly by organisations like the Belgian Building Research Institution (BBRI) and the UK's Building Research Establishment (BRE) as a benchmark and reference for building designs.
The need for such benchmarks is greater than one might think. Mobility problems do not just affect the elderly and disabled. Most people have experienced the difficulty of moving around an airport or train station with heavy luggage – these are the issues that POLIS software system can help building managers plan for. The number of people who are constrained in this way can easily reach 30% of the travelling public.
“POLIS is more than just a piece of design-checking software,” says Nikos Sakkas of Apintech, the Athens-based company that coordinated the project. “There was always a policy dimension to the software system. POLIS is not just about checking individual buildings, although it handles that function very well. It also aims to help policymakers work out how to design buildings and complete travel infrastructures for better accessibility,” he adds.
Sakkas believes that a strong business dimension is essential to the continuity of any research project. “We used our knowledge to offer a consulting capability to the construction industry in Greece, helping companies build houses, hotels, etc., that are more accessible than usual.”
After version 02 of the software system (as used by the BBRI) incorporated an additional fire-safety checking capability, Apintech revisited the software. It is now planning to launch version 03, which will be aimed specifically at accessibility within the tourism industry.
The importance of the latest iteration of POLIS software lies not so much in its modified capabilities for the tourism sector, but the opportunity it offers to develop a new business model. “We are looking at how we can partner with an online booking service, for example, that would rate individual premises for accessibility. In this way mobility-impaired users could arrange a visit or holiday online and check the accessibility rating for any hotel or conference centre they are considering,” Sakkas explains.
Members of the original POLIS team are now developing new kinds of assisted-mobility devices using innovative ideas and novel materials. One example is a portable ramp for wheelchair users. “It is really a kind of wheelchair platform that can be raised or lowered,” says Sakkas, “but it folds down to the size of a suitcase and is hand-portable.”
Sakkas sees this area developing into a significant market niche over time, with assisted-mobility devices taking on a progressively more important role. “For buildings in the future, assistive devices are going to be as important as the design of the building itself,” he believes. “And it will be more a matter of ICT design than physical construction as time goes by.”
If some projections are correct, and by 2050 an estimated 35% of the EU population are over 60, then building accessibility could well become a crucial factor in boosting Europe's future tourism sector.