Universal Design: Architecture Meets Education

Dr. Michael Ralph is the Director of Research at Multistudio, an architecture firm with an emphasis on UDL. 

His research focuses on teaching and learning in context, with an emphasis on understanding the relationship between people, instruction, and the environment. He has a background in secondary STEM education, where he intentionally designed his makerspace to be the most useful and accessible to his learners. As a methodologist, he brings a unique perspective to issues in education through interdisciplinary collaborations.

The problem highlighted in this brief

Universal Design (UD) focuses on creating flexible, multi-use spaces, designed to meet the needs of educators and their students. Dr. Ralph highlights the relationship between Universal Design for Learning (UDL), UD, and interior design, as it relates to intentionally designing spaces that are responsive and flexible to the educational environment. The tenets of UD overlap with UDL in their intentions for designing for student belonging, flexibility, collaboration, learning science, and learning strategies. In this Brief, Dr. Ralph discusses what Universal Design is, how it differs from Universal Design for Learning, and its implications for teacher preparation and the future of learning. 

Why does this topic matter to teacher preparation?

As teacher preparation programs are preparing innovative educators for the future of teaching, we must prepare them to not only design lessons with flexibility in mind but also design environments with the same intention. Space design impacts the types of instruction, collaboration, and experiences that occur within the environment. Thus, the way the environment is designed promotes active learning and makes learning more accessible

About This Brief

In this brief, you will learn about the principles of UD, issues associated with UD, innovative approaches to having discussions around UD, and the implications for the future of teaching and learning. 

Research and Practice Context

Designing Spaces for All 

Universal Design (UD) is an architectural concept that centers on creating buildings that are functional and beautiful for all people, regardless of disability status (Moore et al., 2021). Examples of UD include curb cuts, building entrances without steps, handles rather than knobs, and crosswalks with visual and auditory outputs (TN, n.d.). The principles of UD include (1) equitable use, (2) flexible use, (3) simple and intuitive use, (4) perceptible information, (5) tolerance for error, (6) low physical effort, and (7)size and space for approach and use (Burgstahler, 2021). With a focus on educational spaces, Dr. Ralph works to increase active learning in classrooms by explicitly designing spaces to facilitate interaction which, in turn, improves student achievement and positive attitudes (Ralph et al., 2022). 

The following are key insights shared by Dr. Michael Ralph on this research. The interview focused on five questions about Universal Design in teacher preparation as well as recommendations for teacher educators to incorporate these ideas. 

Q1: What is Universal Design and how is it different from Universal Design for Learning?

Dr. Ralph describes the curb-cut examples of how the intention of the design was for people using wheelchairs yet so many others benefit from them. As a skateboarder himself, he explained ease in moving from sidewalk to street to sidewalk because of curb-cut outs. What was designed for individuals with mobility difficulties is benefitting so many others. 

UDL researchers intentionally plan and ask questions about flexibility (Rao & Meo, 2016). Just as Todd Rose explains in The End of Average, designing a pilot seat for the average fits no one, but designing an adjustable seat meets the needs of a variable population (Rose, 2016). This same concept applies to how we plan our learning spaces.

Dr. Ralph: “Universal Design thinks about how can we have similar approaches to other architectural questions, designing planning questions”

Q2: What issues are you trying to address with your work with Universal Design?

The concept of moving through the environment moves beyond accessibility and considers the intention of the design to facilitate active learning (Ralph et al., 2022a). Considering designs that (1) promote collaboration (Ralph & Gibson, n.d.), (2) are easily changed to fit the ever-changing classroom groupings (Ralph et al., 2022a), and (3) that provide structure and organization in a way that empowers students to take active roles in their learning (Ralph & Gibson, n.d.) are all important factors of UD. 

Dr. Ralph: “If we think about accessibility and an architectural lens, it very often is not considering things like how we learn better, it's thinking about the mechanics of being able to move through the environment.”

Q3: How do you explore Universal Design with educators?

The UDL Deck of Spaces (available here) is a brainstorming and conversational tool designed to have conversations around the intentional design of spaces, with a focus on flexibility and UDL implementation.  The Deck of Spaces has been used worldwide and is available with both a K-12 and high-education environment in mind. The beauty of the Deck of Spaces is it provides context and scaffolding for educators, who are not architects, to have conversations about space design (Ralph & Gibson, n.d.). The second edition of the deck has a focus on DEIB and approaches UDL and design through an equity lens, taking a typically abstract conversation and adding concrete aspects to it (Ralph & Gibson, n.d.).

Dr. Ralph: “We authored the UDL Deck of Spaces, which is a series of card decks that are intended to facilitate some of those conversations.”

Q4: What are some questions about Universal Design we might be asking in the future?

Flexibility is a term often used within the context of UD and UDL. What is flexibility and how does it empower teachers as designers and learners as experts? Creating a flexible environment accounts for variability (Rao & Meo, 2016). Research supports that student-centered instructional models that center on voice and choice (Rose, 2000) increase student engagement, which in turn increases academic productivity (Ralph et al., 2020). Flexibility in the design of the physical space should be combined with active learning techniques to have the most impact on student engagement and active learning (Ralph et al., 2020).  

Dr. Ralph:  “One of the things that is so compelling to me about universal design is really the flexibility with which you can have an impact. And so it can mean lots of different things, to lots of different teachers and have lots of different impacts to lots of different students.”

Q5: What was your favorite space you designed?

Dr. Ralph shared that his favorite space was one he designed when he taught high school. He received a grant to turn a physics lab turned closet into a Makerspace. He intended to create a space that was easily transformed to meet the needs of projects big and small. Though the physical structure of the room was essential in designing for flexibility, the true magic was in the fact that he placed ownership of the room on his students, identifying himself as the facilitator of their learning, rather than the gatekeeper. 

As education continues to evolve with learning and innovation, the idea of flexibility, UD, and UDL continue to evolve into what it means to be a teacher. The classrooms we are designing and the students we are teaching are not “sit-and-get” environments and humans. Rather, we are designing for active learning and innovation. Through the UD and UDL framework and with the support of the Deck of Spaces, educators and higher education faculty can be empowered to design their learning spaces with these essential principles at the forefront.

Dr. Ralph: “We didn't have any doors on any of our cabinets, it was all open, open, and visible shelving so that you're looking around and trying to be creative, you can very quickly scan the room and see which things you want to be using. And you can do all of that without having to touch base with me as the facilitator.”


In the interview, Dr. Ralph provided resources and technology tools for teacher preparation programs starting with Universal Design.

UDL Deck of Spaces

The Deck of Spaces is a brainstorming and conversational tool designed to have conversations around the intentional design of spaces, with a focus on flexibility and UDL implementation.  The Deck of Spaces has been used worldwide and is available with both a K-12 and high-education environment in mind. 

The Deck of Spaces is available for both K-12 and Higher Education settings.


Burgstahler, S. (2021). A universal design framework for addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion on postsecondary campuses. Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal, 17(3).

Department of Health (n.d.). Universal Design. Retrieved from   https://www.tn.gov/health/cedep/environmental/healthy-places/healthy-places/health-equity/he/universal-design.html

Moore, A., Boyle, B., & Lynch, H. (2022). Designing for inclusion in public playgrounds: a scoping review of definitions, and utilization of universal design. Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology, 1-13.

Ralph, M. C. & Gibson, E. H. (n.d.) A Framework to Scaffold Project Visioning for Inclusion. Association for Learning Environments. Retrieved from https://www.a4le.org/A4LE/Resources/Resource_Center/White_Papers/Project_Visioning_for_Inclusion.aspx 

Ralph, M. C., Schneider, B., Benson, D. R., & Ward, D. (2022a). Separated by spaces: Undergraduate students re-sort along attitude divides when choosing whether to learn in spaces designed for active learning. Active Learning in Higher Education, 14697874221118866.

Ralph, M., Schneider, B., Benson, D. R., Ward, D., & Vartia, A. (2022b). Student enrollment decisions and academic success: evaluating the impact of classroom space design. Learning Environments Research, 1-25.

Rao, K., & Meo, G. (2016). Using universal design for learning to design standards-based lessons. Sage Open, 6(4), 2158244016680688.

Rose, D. (2000). Universal design for learning. Journal of Special Education Technology, 15(4), 47-51.

Rose, T. (2016). The end of average: How to succeed in a world that values sameness. Penguin UK.

Suggested Citation

Goldman, S. R.. & the CIDDL Team. (2023). Universal Design: Architecture Meets Education. The Center for Innovation, Design, and Digital Learning.