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YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids Aims to Make the Mary Free Bed YMCA the First Building in the World to Have Universal Design Certification

September 15, 2015
Source: Burton Blatt Institute (BBI)

New Facility to Set Standard in Accessible Health & Wellness Options for People of All Abilities

The YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids [Michigan] has partnered with the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University and the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at the University of Buffalo (IDeA Center), leading organizations in advancing the civic, economic, and social participation of people with disabilities. The goal of the partnership is to work towards receiving the first Global Universal Design Certification from the Global Universal Design Commission (GUDC) for the Mary Free Bed YMCA when the facility opens in December 2015.

"Our community is embarking on the remarkable mission of building the first health and wellness facility in the world specifically designed to equally serve both able-bodied individuals as well as those with a variety of disabilities," said Ron Nelson, President and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids. "We are grateful for our partnership with Peter Blanck, of the Burton Blatt Institute, and Ed Steinfeld, of the IDeA Center, among the worlds foremost experts in universal design, and honored to have the opportunity to receive the first Global Universal Design Certification under the new guidelines. We also greatly appreciate the Mary Free Bed Guild for their thoughtful collaboration on this state-of-the-art facility."

The GUDC created a set of design [principles] to meet the needs of a wide spectrum of human abilities, including an aging population, individuals with disabilities, those recovering from medical procedures, and those with temporary sports injuries, muscular skeletal diseases, and hearing and sight challenges. The guidelines established by the GUDC are based on a decade of extensive research culminating in a new certification process that is expected to be the standard for universal design in architecture and construction. The Mary Free Bed YMCA will be the first facility in the world of its kind to be certified under the new GUDC standards.

"Weve collaborated on projects around the world with the mission of advancing the rights and opportunities of people with disabilities, but weve never seen a building design like the new Mary Free Bed YMCA,” said Peter Blanck, Chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute and the Global Universal Design Commission and Edward Steinfeld, Director of the IDeA Center. “The West Michigan community will be the first in the world to have access to a health and wellness experience that collectively serves the needs of all individuals, regardless of physical abilities. The thought and attentiveness shown in the building plans is truly unparalleled within the universal design community and we look forward to seeing the Mary Free Bed YMCA open its doors."

The Mary Free Bed YMCA embraces functional spaces that not only accommodate people with disabilities, but will welcome them. The inclusive environment of the facility will encourage kids, seniors and families to spend quality time together. Social cohesion and dignity of integration are especially apparent in spaces such as swimming pools and fitness areas where abled and disabled members will work out side-by-side. The Mary Free Bed YMCA universal design elements focus on four main areas:

  • Site: Accessible parking is available (including bicycle, scooter and hand cycle), as well as a new bus stop, wide walking paths and sidewalks with benches, and hard surface viewing areas for wheelchairs at soccer and baseball fields.
  • Circulation: An interior circulation design offers: family style changing and restrooms, an oversized elevator car including horizontal call buttons with braille and non-slip floor surfaces, a bold-colored feature ramp, in lieu of stairs, as the primary vertical circulation and ample seating arranged below the ramp.
  • Visual and Hearing Accommodation: Color schemes and lighting conditions throughout the facility provide cues to people with all types of visual ability. The wayfinding system is designed to be consistently recognized by multiple age groups and cultures. Hearing loops will significantly enhance functionality for hearing aids and cochlear implants. Acoustic techniques, including sound dampening, sound-absorbing ceiling bubbles, and noise isolation minimize noise.
  • Amenities and Functional Spaces: Locker rooms offer optimal accessibility with ergonomic design extending to equipment and fixtures. The 16 large family changing/restrooms, two of which include queen-size mat tables for side transfer, are equipped with zero entry roll-in showers and pull-down benches. The indoor and outdoor spaces were designed to accommodate members who use wheelchairs and mobility devices, including equipment specially designed for wheelchair users, self-operated transfer stations at the swimming pools and a wheelchair softball field.

The GUDC will evaluate the Mary Free Bed YMCA this fall based on its designated design [principles]. If met, the new facility will receive the certification upon opening in December 2015.

The Mary Free Bed YMCA broke ground in September of 2014 on the new $30 million facility in Cascade Township. The 116,200-square-foot, LEED-Certified, fully accessible and integrated health and wellness facility will be located on a 36-acre parcel of land on the southwest corner of Kraft and Burton. For additional information, visit YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids Michigan (

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