Universal Design’s Positive Return on Investment and Social Inclusion

Opened in 2015, the Mary Free Bed YMCA in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, is a state-of-the-art fitness facility designed using the principles of Universal Design (UD). Its design furthers accessibility and usability for all, regardless of user ability, age, and level of understanding (Blanck 2014).

Constructed under the leadership of architecture and engineering firm Progressive AE, the building’s design includes an overall strategy of universal access empowered by a built environment suited to the needs of any user. For this reason, the Mary Free Bed YMCA is the first building in the world to be certified by the Global Universal Design Commission (GUDC). This article will discuss how UD principles were applied to the built environment, as well as the early stage economic and social returns of the Mary Free Bed YMCA.

The main entrance of the Mary Free Bed YMCA features zero transitions between the road, sidewalk, and building.. Photo credit: Bill Lindhout/Progressive AE


The Mary Free Bed YMCA is a 117.000-square-foot facility that sits on a 36-acre campus designed around the principles of UD. The building includes many innovative features and considerations. Three such features are examined in this article: (1) the iconic ramp, (2) the interior color scheme, and (3) the lack of flooring transitions throughout the facility. While these features stand out, nearly every aspect of the YMCA was designed with consideration of UD principles. This includes features such as slip-resistant flooring, assisted listening systems, hardtop field for adaptive softball, independent pool transfer stations, extensive use of natural lighting, pool acoustics for those with hearing impairments, wheelchair storage and locker room accommodations for wheelchair users, among others.

The Mary Free Bed YMCA’s iconic ramp serves as the main form of vertical circulation between the facility’s two floors.<br /> Photo credit: Tony Norkus/Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital

The large yellow ramp serves as an iconic architectural feature and important element of the building’s UD status. As the main form of vertical circulation, the ramp eliminates the need for stairs. The ramp’s length, oversized width, and large landing at its midpoint, makes it accessible to nearly everyone. This single mode of transportation creates equality among users and promotes healthy living. From handrail to handrail, the ramp reaches a width of eight feet, which allows for three lanes of travel. This accounts for varying speeds of different users. The landing serves as a point of respite and wayfinding with expansive views of the gymnasium and fitness areas. With its bold coloring and visibility from almost anywhere in the facility, the ramp helps users with wayfinding and orientation within the facility. Natural light comes from a clerestory, which ensures favorable lighting conditions.

The Mary Free Bed YMCA puts the relatively new idea of “Color Universal Design” into action. Color Universal Design implies a system that allows information to be accurately conveyed to as many individuals as possible and takes people with various types of color vision into consideration. The objectives of Color Universal Design are simple:

  • Use simple color schemes that are easily identified by people with all types of color vision as well as the young and elderly.
  • Use a combination of shapes, positions, line types, and coloring patterns to ensure information is conveyed to those who cannot distinguish differences in color.

Keeping in mind the global brand of the YMCA, designers used a mixture of contrasting blues, yellows, and yellow-green hues. Bright colors help distinguish changes in architecture while highlighting important program areas like the ramp and group exercise rooms. Grey acts as a neutral base for providing a mental break between these elements. The following colors were chosen for the Mary Free Bed YMCA:

  • Grey “Fundamentally Neutral”. Pure grey is the only color with no direct psychological properties. As such, it acts as the base of the color scheme and provides highlight for important elements.
  • Blue “Intellectual”. Blue is the color of the mind and, as such, is essentially soothing. It affects people mentally, as opposed to the physical reaction with red. Blue is used strategically throughout the YMCA to denote areas of increased concentration, rehabilitation, and connectivity to water.
  • Yellow “Emotional”. The yellow wavelength is relatively long and stimulating. In this case the stimulus is emotional, therefore yellow is psychologically the strongest color. The right yellow color can lift our spirits and self-esteem. The critical and monumental elements of the Mary Free Bed YMCA, such as the ramp and track railings, are adorned in blends of yellow-green hues to stimulate hope and a sense of optimism.
  • Green “Balance”. Green strikes the eye in such a way that it requires no adjustment and is restful. Being in the center of the spectrum, it is the color of balance –a more important concept then people realize. We are reassured by green on a primitive level, which made the color well-suited for program areas connected to health, healthy eating, and childcare.

The YMCA features seamless transitions among multiple flooring materials throughout the entire space. This allows for users of any ability and age to easily access all parts of the YMCA. Planning for this started from the beginning, with a detailed concrete slab plan to compensate for differing floor heights.


Less than two years into operation, the Mary Free Bed YMCA evidences positive returns on investment (ROIs) economically and socially. When compared to the previous YMCA that served the same community, net revenues for the first year are up an unprecedented 25% above budget. Contributing to this positive return is the growth in membership, up 366% from the old facility. The new UD facility has attracted 200% more senior members and has 352% increase in gate visits. Utility costs show a 14% decrease (results of Pre- and Post-Occupancy Surveys conducted by The YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids and Progressive AE).

In addition to these encouraging outcomes, UD enables the facility to substantially grow its program offerings. The Mary Free Bed YMCA offers nineteen new programs to members, eight of which are adaptive sports programs. These include wheelchair basketball, lacrosse, rugby and softball, along with adaptive rock climbing, “sports sampler” programs, cheerleading, and swim lessons.

The Mary Free Bed YMCA collaborates with the local school district Transition Centers to provide occupational training for 18 to 26-year-olds, which include an educational and hands-on learning component. Other community partners include the Disability Advocates of Kent County, which hosts educational classes on communicating and working persons with disabilities, and the Family Hope Foundation that provides services to individuals with special needs.

The growing success of the Mary Free Bed YMCA is a model for other YMCA and recreation facilities around the world. In a short amount of time, numerous universities, rehabilitation centers, and healthcare organizations have toured the building eager to improve their facilities for the safety and comfort of members, patients, students, and staff. Interest in the facility is overwhelming and encouraging as more individuals and organizations strive to design buildings that aspire to the innovative GUDC standards.


The design of the Mary Free Bed YMCA began with the principles of inclusion, community engagement, and full and equal participation for all (Blanck 2016). The building planning process focused on the broad mission of the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids and creating a community hub that serves everyone.

UD opens the door to new users seeking access to wellness and health programs, while generating a sense of community, social values, and economic return on investment (Blanck & Rotella 2017). The facility is one emerging model for inclusion, collaboration, and innovative programming. The positive trends and measures of success towards inclusion and equal participation at the Mary Free Bed YMCA add to the growing support for UD in building and program design.

Nonetheless, the present studies by the GUDC and its partners require replication and further detailed analysis using additional sites, and examining trends over time for different individuals over the life course. Presently, there is a relative dearth of empirical social and economic analyses, and qualitative case studies, on UD. These efforts are particularly important, given UD ties to community sustainability and growth, and to supporting the human rights of full and equal participation in society (Blanck 2014; Blanck & Flynn 2017).

Much more may be learned about UD in action at living laboratories such as the Mary Free Bed YMCA. Continued study is needed to establish that UD is not just the right thing to do from a social and moral perspective, but also it is an innovative and smart business decision from an economic viewpoint.


Michael L. Perry AIA, Executive Vice President of Progressive AE, Global Universal Design Commission (GUDC) Board Member; Michael Rotella, GUDC Associate Director; and Peter Blanck, Chairman GUDC & Chairman Burton Blatt Institute (BBI), Syracuse, New York, USA


  • Blanck, P. (2014). eQuality: the Struggle for Web Accessibility by Persons with Cognitive Disabilities, Cambridge University Press.
  • Blanck, P. (2016, April 29). Universal Architectural Design and People with Disabilities, Numbers by Kreab Magazine, 14, 64-69 (Spanish and English).
  • Blanck, P. & Flynn, E. (Eds.) (2017). Routledge Handbook of Disability Law and Human Rights, Taylor & Francis Group, London, UK.
  • Blanck, P. & Rotella, M. (2017, March 21). Universal Design and People with Disabilities: “Destiny Arms”, a Global Universal Design Commission Living Laboratory, Numbers by Kreab Magazine 19, 59-61 (Spanish and English).


Source: Universal Design’s Positive Return on Investment and Social Impact: the Mary Free Bed YMCA Living Laboratory and Study | Global Universal Design Commission

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