Mei-Yee Man Oram is responsible for leading the Access and Inclusive Environments team at the London office of Arup, a strategic consulting firm for sustainable engineering. She is currently working on projects focusing on the idea of inclusive design, which involves creating products, services or buildings in a way that is useful and optimally functional for the largest possible audience, taking into account the detailed needs of future users, as she discusses in an interview for A&B.
Mei-Yee Man Oram - Heads the Access and Inclusive Environments team at Arup in London, which focuses on inclusive design and accessibility. In her day-to-day work, she helps design infrastructure that takes into account the needs of different user groups, and reviews designs for local and national requirements, cultural diversity and best practices. She holds a degree in architecture and art history from Cambridge University. She is involved in social integration programs. She is interested in the impact of architecture on society. She assumes that good design improves the quality of life and should be accessible to all.
Anna Walewska:Could you talk about your area of interest?
Mei-Yee Man Oram:I work in a team whose role is barrier-free design, which means focusing on how we can create better places for everyone. We look through the lens of marginalized communities to make sure that what we design is also representative of people who are often overlooked in the process.
Anna:What kind of solutions do you have in mind?
Mei-Yee:It's important to make sure that the data we use to create our designs truly reflects and represents all representatives of society. For example, the space we provide in the aisles must be wide enough for a person in a wheelchair. When thinking about the design of spaces, we have to consider factors that affect safety, such as women and children. We talk to LGBTQIA+ people, representatives of ethnic minorities, so that their voice is represented, becomes part of the solution adopted, and so that they can share a sense of belonging and responsibility for the design. We also propose design solutions that aim to make people feel much more welcome. As a result, this creates more opportunities for social participation - our efforts are aimed at leveling the playing field.
The inclusive reception of Arup's London headquarters
Photo: Paul Carstairs © Arup
Anna: So what do you do on a daily basis?
Mei-Yee:I don't have a fixed schedule, but I often work with architects and our design teams and clients. I oversee work and plans for specific buildings or public spaces. Consultations, which take place almost every day, are a great opportunity to identify any potential barriers to our projects. If we find them, we consider how we can reduce or remove these barriers. We use the consultations as an opportunity to implement inclusive design. We think about how people use the space and how we can make it more user-friendly for different users. An important part of the process is talking to representatives of particular groups. As I mentioned, people who are often overlooked in the design process, here have a decisive voice.
In inclusive spaces, people feel more welcome
Photo: Paul Carstairs © Arup
Anna: I think we've come a long way from providing shelter to conscious design.
Anna: What do you think is next? What category should be included next?
Mei-Yee:I think one of the elements that we are already seeing in our projects is what we call co-design, or participatory design, in the UK. It involves not just talking to diverse communities, but designing with their participation in a much more holistic way, at different stages. In this approach, it's necessary to give participants representing each group, who have never had experience working in the construction industry, the space to feel comfortable in the process and know what questions they can ask and what is possible. So that everyone can understand where they can contribute. The co-design process greatly enhances the creativity of the design team and helps create innovations that can enrich the life of the community. I hope this will be the next step.
Over the years, the statistical shapes of people and the devices they use have changed, so it is necessary to take this into account in designs
© Hufton Crow
Anna: I have this experience that when more people are involved, it's harder to get results.
Mei-Yee:There is something about that. If there are too many voices, there is a risk that nothing will be achieved. At the same time, there are opportunities in the construction industry to make it easier to manage these voices. I think one of the tasks of the project team is to help manage different expectations. It is very important to educate both parties. We know that we are learning from the community to bring design solutions, but also the community is learning from us as an industry how to engage more consciously. Hopefully, the next generation will be able to see much more diversity on their own. And our work in terms of getting that diverse perspective won't be as difficult or challenging as it is now.
Anna: Could you tell me about your completed projects?
Mei-Yee: We just completed a project that will hopefully be made public in the next few months and everyone will have access to its documentation. We carried it out with the UK government, and it consisted of collecting data on accessibility and people with disabilities and how these people use infrastructure. Building regulations in the UK have so far been based on a set of unrepresentative data - they were mainly about white men. They did not take into account the different groups present in our society then and now. They also did not take into account the fact that in the fifty years since the last major data collection, people's body shapes and sizes have changed, the equipment they use has changed, in fact everything has changed. So instead of manual wheelchairs, which are generally much smaller, many people are using electric vehicles. Suddenly, everything is getting bigger, and this is not accounted for in building regulations. Our project was aimed at collecting new data and defining contemporary needs. We tried to make this new vision much more representative. At the moment, our work is being reviewed by the British government. Another interesting project is the recently completed conversion of an old police station into office space. One of the challenges in this project was working on an existing building, so there were many things we couldn't change. We couldn't just tear it down and start over. This was a renovation project with a strict budget. Moreover, it was a historic building. The local authorities wanted to preserve the original historic architecture. So we did a lot of consulting with heritage officials and preservationists to make sure that everything that was culturally and historically significant was properly addressed. We were able to transform the building, preserving all the important factors and changing its function, while making it much better for the user than it was originally.
The space in Arup's London headquarters must be wide enough for wheelchair users
© Hufton Crow
Anna: Do you think it is possible to create the perfect space or place?
Mei-Yee:I think it is possible. The key is to design a flexible space so that people can decide how they use it. There is no one solution that works for everyone, because there are so many differences and preferences. But if you create a solution that is adaptable to the needs of many people, then everyone will be able to use a given space just as easily and effectively. I think flexibility and adaptability is the key.
Anna: So what should the space look like?
Mei-Yee:In the case of 80 Charlotte Street, Arup's London headquarters, the theme is to think about smart technology, about data and how we can bring it to people. There are a number of sensors around the building that collect information on how warm and how loud it is in different areas of the building, and how many people are in those areas. The data is then recorded and presented in an easy-to-understand format on screens in the reception area, among other places. When someone, whether a visitor or an employee, enters the building, they can look at the data summary and decide what kind of space they want to be in that day. This is one example of how we can design a space that is fixed, but allows people to be flexible. For example, if someone suffers from migraines that are triggered by a certain type of light, they may choose to work in a space with more subtle lighting.
The key in inclusive design is to create a flexible space
Photo credit: Paul Carstairs © Arup
Anna:How did you discover that you wanted to do what you do?
Mei-Yee:Completely by accident. I studied architecture and art history, and I was most interested in the impact of architecture on people and the analysis of human behavior in built spaces. When I graduated, I had no idea what I wanted to do. By chance, I discovered a team called Access and Inclusive Environments at Arup. I thought it combined everything I love. It's working with people and communities. I realized that this is what I want to do. It was a complete coincidence, but a very happy one.
Anna:Thank you for the interview.