Room for All: Designing for Special Needs

Most planners and architects can speak volumes about accessibility requirements — gently sloping ramps, elevators, wide hallways, and specific bathroom fixtures. But those regulations go only so far in making the city suited to non-normative individuals. Most subway stations, built long before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, are far from accessible, and the rest of our built environment largely caters to someone without special needs, mobility or otherwise.

Tamara Petrovic and Garner Oh, partners of the architecture and design firm 0 to 1, are intimately aware of such needs. To address their son’s difficulty with balance and motor skills, the pair developed a range of products for the home that transform his living environment into a safe and appealing space for all members of the family and resist the institutional aesthetic often seen in special needs products. With attention to materiality as well as usability, Petrovic and Oh’s approach is both pragmatic and aspirational. Their Super Special line testifies to the power of design to dramatically improve individual lives and offers lessons for how we shape our schools, libraries, parks, and playgrounds. Read on for a conversation on how small interventions can foster independence and well-being and the potential for extending designs addressing special needs into the wider public realm. –J.T.

Wavy grab bars in use in an installation at the Fat Cat Fab Lab
Jonathan Tarleton (JT):

Tell me about yourselves and your practice.

Tamara Petrovic (TP):

I’m a product designer and partner at 0 to 1, our architecture and design firm, and Garner is an architect and the other partner. We’ve worked on projects as small as tabletop products to whole building renovations — and everything in between.


What is your Super Special project?


Super Special is an investigation into the possibility of creating economical, sustainable, and simple products and built environments for children with special needs.

It is a self-motivated project — we’re partners in our practice as well as husband and wife, and we have a six-year-old son with cerebral palsy. He has difficulty with balance and motor skills, and over our years observing how he interacts with the built environment and all the objects in it, we have noticed that design can be the difference between him needing help and being independent.

Cushy floor covering made of cork and wool.
Garner Oh (GO):

We started making things for him after initially looking at off-the-shelf stuff. We tried lots of soft environments: we got a rug, then a foam mat, but the material wasn’t sustainable, practical, or easy to clean. We thought, what can we do to make the floor soft? We started with cork, then found another cork, and added wool padding. Natural material just has a good feel to it, so the difference between cork and wool and the EVA foam is huge. It’s softer, feels better, and doesn’t stink.

Then we figured why not put our heads together to create more that we know will help him, but that’s made of good materials and will look good in the apartment. We realized that those designs actually could help other kids, but we needed to get to a point where we could share it with other people. The first five years were really hectic —understanding his needs and what we can do for him — and now we’re at a point where we can put the designs on paper.


We’re interested in all aspects of these products: what materials are used, how they’re made, by whom they’re made, what lifespan they will have, how they’ll be disposed of. A lot of what’s commercially available is not sustainable, which we want to avoid because they might be in the household for a whole period of a child’s development. We really didn’t want any off-gassing or other negative side effects from materials.

Edgy furniture

What did you create and how do those interventions address balance and mobility needs?


Super Special has three products. We didn’t want them to look institutional or special in any way, especially with the furniture.

The first product is the wooden grab bars, which can be installed throughout a space to allow a child to pull up to stand and continue standing. The wood is soft and curved, without edges for safety reasons, and the bars have a built-in shelf that protects kids from getting their arms stuck behind the bar. The shelf also serves as a place to put toys that encourage the child to pull up and stand. We designed them on a 24-inch module in our apartment, so that whether your wall studs are 24 or 16 inches on center, it goes in easily. With the proper fasteners, they can be attached to any wall. They’re beautifully fabricated from hardwood by Colleen and Eric Whiteley, two local designers and our collaborators. The modules can be lined up to be as long as you want them. Our son is becoming more mobile, so he doesn’t need grab bars all along the wall; he just needs them at specific locations to get from point A to point B.

Our Edgy furniture is soft and curved so that if a child falls, they will not bump into an edge or another hard surface. It’s impossible to cut yourself on it. It will probably break before you break. It consists of three forms: a low table that can be used for floor-based dining, L-shaped chairs for lounging, and cubes that can be used as tables or seats. The forms are multifunctional: the low dining table can be put together with the chairs to make a couch. The chairs can be put together with the cubes to make a bed. The cubes can be stacked one on top of another to make higher tables. And there are cushions everywhere so they can be used on the seats or on the floor. The chair backs serve as another place to pull up and stand, or just a spot for kids to take a break while navigating the environment.

And then we have the floors and walls made from cork and wool to cushion any falls if they happen. Those are also easy to clean.

Possible Edgy furniture configurations

How have these products changed your and your son’s experience of your home?


We’ve seen that our son is much more interested in spending time in the living room since we created these. Before, we had a dining table and a sofa just like you would find in any living space, and he was not able to use that furniture. He can now climb up and sit in the chairs. He can use the table because it’s low, and he holds on to the back of the chairs. He loves the furniture and navigating around the room. We’ve also noticed that his friends, of all abilities, really enjoy the low furniture, so it’s fun for play dates.


These products focus on the interior of the home, but how might these ideas or interventions be deployed in more public spaces?


I think it’s most beneficial to focus on spaces that people with special needs go to regularly. A child with cerebral palsy is not going be wandering around in every single space in the city, and the special needs community is only maybe one percent of the general population. Implementing these kinds of interventions on a subway platform is not really practical. Most of the time intervention is really needed at early ages, so the focus should be on areas where children go to play and learn — schools, libraries, and playgrounds.

We tend to go places where we know our son will be comfortable and might have certain things that he can hold on to. In his school, there’s nothing for him to hold on to on the walls in the hallways, so he has to use a gait trainer to get around. Whenever there’s a fence, that’s where he gravitates. There’s a building in our neighborhood that has a low wall and he’ll actually hold on to that and navigate. In the grocery store, he likes the shelving where they sell meat, which is the perfect height for him. But I understand that you can’t put a handrail down the entire street for that one percent.


Some spaces do have adaptable objects. The playground by our house has a special needs swing. Otherwise, we try to adapt to what’s around us.


It’s easier, and easier is always better in this case. Before, we would have to have someone next to him all the time in case he fell, but now we can leave him in the space and let him navigate by himself knowing that even if he does fall he’s going to be safe. Nothing is going to break. And he’s more independent.

Grab bar design drawing

Do Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance requirements or other regulations give rise to more of these sorts of accessible or comfortable features in public spaces?


Yes, but the regulations are very general. Every playground is going to have one swing that’s big, plastic, red, and has a seatbelt. It’s like the barrier-free design where you have an elevator or a ramp into the building. But the details that a child like our son needs are not written in the books yet. That’s something we can think about and improve upon.


Are there other interventions you have considered creating to meet other needs of people in the special needs community?


Definitely — the next project we’re thinking about is Super Special Play, followed by Super Special Eating. Every activity for children with mobility issues can be a whole topic in itself. All the objects that are involved need to be addressed individually. For example, with eating, you have the plate, the spoon, the table, the height of the table, the height of the chair — everything needs to be looked at. So with any activity, we’re interested in looking at what needs to be designed around it. With play, we want to encourage lots of jumping and dynamic play. Like your typical five- or six-year-old, our child wants to jump and run and do everything that other children his age want to do, but he needs additional support to allow him to engage in active play.

We’re also hoping to reach out and see what other families think and what they need to explore how we can make it available.


Do these considerations come into play when you’re designing for other projects that aren’t specifically geared to a special needs population?


Whenever I look at any environment, I have this in my mind. But there’s not always an opportunity to implement any of those considerations — the projects that come to us have their own requirements and specific needs that we have to fulfill.


But it does make you think. Whenever I see a new building, I see things that I’d question. When architect Michael Graves ended up in a wheelchair, it changed the way he designed — he saw life from a different perspective. That has been a great inspiration to us.

Tamara Petrovic is a product designer who has worked in Amsterdam, London, and her hometown of New York City. A native of Belgrade, her designs reflect the balance of grace and strength that she embodies as a Serbian-American. Tamara believes that innovation rooted in simplicity supports our best way of living. Aside from collaborating on architecture projects with her husband Garner, the scope of her work includes furniture, jewelry and botanical designs. Tamara studied Ikebana at Ikenobo School of Ikebana in Kyoto, Japan, and holds a BFA in Furniture Design from Parsons School of Design, New York.


A licensed architect living and working in New York City, Garner finds his inspiration in people, rhythm, light, art, simplicity, mathematics, science, and nature. Along with his wife Tamara, he seeks to find the wonderment within architecture that fulfills our human connection. Devoted to New York City as the apex of diversity and integration, Garner believes good buildings can uplift the human spirit and that architecture is a vehicle for the betterment of society. He graduated with a Master of Architecture from the University of Maryland in 2000.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.