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UC Berkeley Lecture Halls and the Role of The Americans with Disabilities Act



    UC Berkeley Lecture Halls and the Role of The Americans with Disabilities Act

    By Kathleen Alice Sheffer

    Faculty Sponsor: Professor Michael James Dear

    Individual Major Senior Thesis

    College of Environmental Design | University of California, Berkeley

    May 1, 2015

  • Table of Contents



    Research Statement

    Fixed Stadium-Style Seating

    The Americans with Disabilities Act

    Equity Vs. Efficiency

    Design Proposal













    UC Berkeley Lecture Halls and the Role of The Americans with Disabilities Act


    Through the lens of two case study lecture halls on the University of California Berkeley

    campus, the study outlines the origins and flaws of fixed tiered auditorium seating ubiquitous in

    large capacity classrooms. Interviews and observation of the case study auditoriums expose

    failure to comply with federal design standards in addition to disregard for basic environmental

    needs of users. Lack of flexibility and design focused on a single body type contribute to

    discomfort in these settings. The paper tackles the dilemma of equity versus efficiency,

    proposing a modular spiral ramped auditorium design as a cost-effective solution to the

    multiplicity of issues associated with standard lecture hall design.


    The University of California at Berkeley is one of the forebears of the Disability Rights

    Movement. As the first university to admit a student with a serious disability, the first city to

    install a curb cut, and first community to build a Center for Independent Living, Berkeley is

    famed for its progressive approach to disability. Today, Berkeley attracts a large number of

    students with disabilities, many of whom are still turned away by other institutions. As such, UC

    Berkeley is a leader among universities in providing services to students with disabilities.

    Nonetheless, the University of California Berkeley still has a long way to go before it is equally

    accessible to all students. In the 25th year of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), this

    paper evaluates the efficacy of the ADAs regulatory changes in a critical setting.

  • 2 Research Statement

    Through the lens of two case study lecture halls on the University of California Berkeley

    campus, the study evaluates flaws in auditorium design conventions. The case study sites chosen

    are auditoriums with 200 to 300 seats: 145 Dwinelle Hall, completed in 1952 before the passage

    of the ADA and 245 Li Ka Shing, completed in 2011 after the passage of the original legislation,

    but before the revisions to the Act and accessibility guidelines came into effect.

    145 Dwinelle Hall is 2,392 square feet with 217 seats. 245 Li Ka Shing is 6,525 square

    feet, accommodating 297 seats. These two are among the largest lecture halls on campus, built

    with a similar design strategy nearly sixty years apart. Similar courses are taught in the

    auditoriums, including both science and humanities classes, to large groups of students. Both

    auditoriums face south in halls built on a grade. The campus map provided in Figure 31

    demonstrates their geographic proximity.

    145 Dwinelle and 245 Li Ka Shing will be evaluated quantitatively based on the ADA

    Checklist for Readily Achievable Barrier Removal and qualitatively through one-on-one

    interviews with frequent usersnamely, students in classes held in the halls in question.

    Relevant literature on the subject will help to better understand the issues being considered,

    including the reasons for and intentions of fixed stadium-style seating in auditorium design. The

    paper culminates in a design proposal that offers solutions and serves as a vehicle to further

    expose failures of standard lecture hall design.

    1 Interactive Campus Map, University of California Berkeley (2014).

  • 3

    Figure 1. 145 Dwinelle Hall Seating Plan.

    Figure 2. 245 Li Ka Shing Center Seating Plan.

  • 4

    Figure 3. University of California Berkeley Campus Map.

  • 5 Fixed Stadium-Style Seating

    This paper will use the term, fixed seating, interchangeably with stadium-style

    seating, auditorium seating, and tiered seating. The use of these terms will facilitate the

    intention of this paper, which is to examine in context the general seating structure that is

    commonly found in assembly areas such as theaters, sports arenas, and lecture halls, including

    auditoriums in Dwinelle Hall and Li Ka Shing Center.

    The Ancient Greeks pioneered the stadium-style seating structure in stadia known as

    Hippodromes. These U-shaped arenas were dug into hillsides in order to construct seating

    tiers for spectators around the perimeter. Later, the Romans expanded on this structure. The

    Romans established a social hierarchy within the tiered seating structure of the Colosseum,

    taking greater care with and employing more valuable materials in the construction of seats in

    lower levels that inherently have better sightlines. As the diagram in Figure 5 illustrates, these

    lower seating areas were reserved for senators and nobility, with the seats furthest from the arena

    allocated to women and slaves.2

    Stadium-style seating was introduced to movie theaters in the mid-1900s to improve the

    viewing experience with better sightlines to increasingly large movie screens.3 In addition to

    enhancing users experience, designers have various practical reasons for choosing tiered seating

    of this style: most importantly, its space efficiency and corresponding cost efficiency. Space 2 Brett Jenaway, "Evolution of Stadiums: A Study in the Design and Construction of Ancient and

    Modern Stadia," (2013), 27.

    3 Felicia H. Ellsworth, "The Worst Seats in the House: Stadium-Style Movie Theaters and the

    Americans with Disabilities Act," The University of Chicago Law Review 71, no. 3 (Chicago:

    Summer 2004), 1109.

  • 6

    Figure 4. Present day site of the Hippodrome in the ancient Greek city of Aphrodisias.2

  • 7

    Figure 5. Cross section of the Colosseum, illustrating seating hierarchy.2

  • 8 efficiency is achieved by aligning rows of standardized fixed chairs are on successive steps rising

    from a lower focal pointgenerally either a stage or a screen. Stepped seating enables the chairs

    to be placed closer together than in sloped auditoriums where the aisles must be wider to retain

    lines of sight in rows further back from the focal point.

    Stadium-style theaters are lauded for having revolutionized the movie-going

    experience. American Multi-Cinema Entertainment Inc. (AMC) was the first to bring stadium-

    style seating to its theaters, declaring that the design guaranteed that all seats were the best in

    the house. 4 Contradicting this propaganda, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ)

    contends that because most stadium-style theaters limit wheelchair seating to non-stadium

    sections in the frontareas that provide universally poor and uncomfortable viewing angles

    lines of sight are not comparable to those provided to able-bodied users, violating the standards

    of the Americans with Disabilities Act, discussed in later sections.5

    The original Nickelodeon was the first type of indoor space used for motion pictures.

    In the early 1900s, these simple theaters were erected in converted storefronts and charged five

    cents for admission. Their makeshift origins unintentionally eliminated many of the accessibility

    4 Laura K. McKibbin, The ADA Takes On the Movie Industry: Do the Disabled Have a Right

    to the Best Seats in the House? The University of San Francisco Law Review 38 (San Francisco:

    2003-2004), 831.

    5 Elsworth, The Worst Seats, 1110.

  • 9 issues we have in todays standard auditoriums. Figures 66 and 77 illustrate this advantage: the

    renovated storefronts bring people in from right off the street, with no stairs involved. Early

    seating was not tiered, which, in theory, would allow more seating choices for people with

    mobility impairments. However, both old and new movie theater designs lack consideration for a

    full range of users. In the first Nickelodeon theaters chairs occupied all available space, leaving

    no room for alternative seating. The key problems created by fixed auditorium seating persist

    with little progress or improvement in the present day.

    Sociologist Donna Huse credits Michel Foucault with revealing the connection between

    the interior architecture of the mass institution and issues of uniform behavior, discipline, and

    mathematical calculability.8 Foucault identifies the central feature of this connection as the

    assignment of individual location.to each individual his own place and each place its

    individual.9 He references Jeremy Benthams Panopticon design as the origin of such a concept.

    The Panopticon was a design for factories and later prisons and schools in which every work

    station was visible to a central authority and ever


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