Architecture and design have always been concerned with the effect of an object or space on the human experience. 20th-century European philosophy structured this into a quantifiable science called phenomenology. According to the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Phenomenology documents and studies structures of consciousness as experienced from a first-person point of view. 

In design, phenomenology is applied as the result of multiple qualitative studies that establish a relationship between object, space, user, and experience without prior assumptions. 

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Phenomenology in Architecure by Peter Zumthor_©Fernando Guerra

In an attempt to engage all the senses of the human experience, geometric proportions, auditory, olfactory, and visual influences, along with tactile variance, are considered to curate a holistic experience for the user. Here, the user is often assumed to have no disabilities. This brings us to the question: how does one design for inclusivity? 

How materials help 

Inclusive design’s role is integrating diverse people’s needs into spatial experiences and objects. With almost 15% of the world’s population experiencing some form of disability and the growing elderly population around the globe, inclusivity must play a role in design, helping create moments that are common and relatable to the entire human experience. 

Inclusive design has always been associated with means of physical accessibility and tactical experiences. But with raising awareness and research, designers have experimented with including other sensory stimulators in their designs. The intelligent use of materials plays a crucial role in translating these experiences to the differently abled. 

Materials in isolation are complex objects; each material is unique in its disposition and characteristics. For instance, different types of stones have different textures and finishes, behave differently in different seasons, and have different auditory tones when struck with an external object. Similarly, wood from different types of trees have distinct aromas and textures. Materials can enhance the user’s experience with more than just visual and aesthetic cues.  They engage multiple senses simultaneously, enabling a particular spatial experience for all. Hence, choosing and using materials consciously and thoughtfully becomes an essential step towards inclusive design. 

Choosing Materials 

The choice of materials for a project often depends on the scale of the project and the program. Yet some standard practices can be considered while designing spaces meant for the public. 

For instance, using contrasting material textures can help demarcate different spaces without creating barriers in the form of plinths or steps that can restrict the accessibility of individuals using wheelchairs or misdirect the visually impaired. It also helps prevent accidents in public spaces; these can be seen in pavements where paving blocks are met with contrasting studded metal plates often painted in bright colors where the pavement meets the road, indicating one to stop and exercise caution 

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Contrasting materials_©CSE for Landscape Architects

In indoor settings, choosing light-colored materials that bounce off light can prevent visual discomfort for the partially blind, and using appropriate materials or cladding on walls and roofs to reduce noise reverberation can prevent discomfort and pain for users with hearing loss. 

Using a wide range of materials across one project with strong olfactory cues can also help indicate the transition of spaces, functions, and seasons and create experiences that engage more than one sense.

Application of suitable materials 

As much as the choice of materials is important, the thoughtful application of these materials also plays a crucial role. In any space, the floor plays the role of a datum; all use it and has to be easily accessed without strain or discomfort. When it comes to flooring solutions and sealing, Home Solid Home stands out as your reliable ally.

Materials should allow for easy movement of wheelchairs without creating too much resistance; this would exclude using materials like carpets and stones with large irregularities for flooring that require excess effort to move on and sometimes can create a sense of distrust to move freely. Flooring must also act as an indicator of function and keep in mind the safety of its users. Wet spaces like kitchens and washrooms must employ materials that resist slipping. The gradual transition of materials from rough to smoother finishes as one moves from the outdoors to indoors can also help orient individuals who are differently abled. 

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Wheelchair Accesable Flooring_©BuildDirect

Following floors, walls act as the next most used element in a built space. Using different materials at different heights can help engage individuals of different age groups and can become elements of way-finding within a space. Using a warm material like wood as guard rails along the walls provides a more friendly tactile experience for the elderly and physically challenged while assuring them of safety. 

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Walls designed for visually impaired_©ArchDaily

Nature as a material 

Apart from materials that are designed for inclusivity, nature can be used as a material. Different aromatic plants can become spatial markers; water channels can help become auditory wayfinders. Like in the Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Mexico by Taller de Arquitectura-Mauricio Rocha where 6 aromatic plants around the center help orient the visually impaired, and water channels direct users within the complex

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Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired_©ArchDaily

Using direct and indirect sunlight as a material can also be a way to engage with all of the users of a building. It can help one to understand the time of day intuitively through light and warmth. 

Including Nature through Materials 

With the rising concern over climate change, questions of housing local ecologies within designed spaces are addressed. Projects by Harrison Atelier shed light on how materials and design can be used to improve local ecologies and promote and sustain ecosystems. Their project, ‘Ferel Surfaces,’ uses perforated mycelium bricks around a garden to house bees. At the same time, humans sit beside them, creating a dialogue between the bees, plants, and humans, with the mycelium bricks as a material acting as the common thread connecting all. 

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Feral Surface_©HarrisonAtelier

Holistic Inclusivity

Until now, we have discussed the relationship between accessibility and materials. However, this does not cover the entirety of inclusive design practices. Conversations around inclusive design have evolved over time. The inclusive design engages with ideas surrounding gender identities, complex ecologies, race, culture, economics, etc.…  Rather than focusing on materials, spatial planning, and design detailing heavily inform design around these ideas. 

Designing for inclusivity cannot always satisfy all users with a single solution. Like our world, solutions to address inclusivity are also complex, and sometimes, a combination of solutions must be employed to address a single concern. Hence, phenomenology helps us understand and set common practices that can enhance experiences irrespective of our abilities, identities, and environments. It helps in uniting us through design for a collective human experience 

 Online sources:

 Atelier, H. (no date) Project page_barcelonaferalsurface, Harrison Atelier. Available at: (Accessed: 28 January 2024). 

Henry, C. (2011) Center for the blind and visually impaired / taller de arquitectura-Mauricio Rocha, ArchDaily. Available at: (Accessed: 28 January 2024). 

Smith, D.W. (2013) Phenomenology, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at: (Accessed: 28 January 2024). 

studioTECHNE|architects (2023) Accessible Architecture & Design: Accessible Design Architecture: Studiotechne: Architects – studio Techne, architects. Available at: (Accessed: 28 January 2024). 

Team, E. (2023) Inclusive Design and accessible architecture: Why they are pivotal today, RMJM. Available at: (Accessed: 28 January 2024). 

Tovar, E. (2024) How can buildings work for everyone? the future of inclusivity and accessibility in architecture, ArchDaily. Available at: (Accessed: 28 January 2024). 


Bhavana Priya B is an Architectural designer with a distinction in her masters from the University of Pennsylvania. She believes in the importance of design and architecture and its need to stay relevant in society. Her passion is to make Architectural knowledge more accessible and lead sustainable innovation in the field.