Madeleine Niepceron advances inclusive design through research

Madeleine Niepceron graduating with a masters degree in Architecture.

Madeleine Niepceron graduating with a masters degree in Architecture 

By Isha Bubna

Published June 18, 2021


Recent Master of Architecture graduate Madeleine Niepceron views architecture through the lens of inclusivity and ardently believes the built environment must benefit all users, irrespective of their age, gender, ability level or background.

Meet Madeleine Niepceron

Drawn to UB for its international reputation in the field of inclusive design, 2021 MArch graduate Madeleine Niepceron has dedicated the past two years to advancing research in socially-just design. Her portfolio of scholarship includes a master’s thesis on inclusive design in U.S. prisons and experience as a research assistant with the IDEA Center (Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access), a global leader in inclusive design research.

Niepceron says the experience has reinforced the pivotal role of research in the design process, and armed her with unique perspective on the power of just design.

“I firmly believe that we have a responsibility to design for justice, equity and inclusion of all individuals and cultures, and ensure that through the spaces we design, all people have a chance to be treated humanely and with dignity.” 

- Madeleine Niepceron

What drew you to focus your architectural studies on Inclusive Design?

During my undergraduate studies at ENSAPVS, a French architecture school located in Paris, I had the opportunity to spend a year as an exchange student at Iowa State University. I learned about universal design there, in one of the classes I took: Design for All People, by Arvid Osterberg. This experience opened my eyes to a different way of conceiving architecture, centered on the idea of design equity and inclusion, and I knew I wanted to assimilate further knowledge on the topic. The MArch program at UB was recommended to me by one of my professors at Iowa State University, because of the Inclusive Design Graduate Research Group, and the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA), located in the School of Architecture and Planning.

Describe the nature of your research role at the IDEA Center?

Starting in May 2020 at the IDEA Center, I was given the opportunity to be involved in many different types of projects. One of the highlights was the isUD (innovative solutions for Universal Design) certification program developed by the IDEA Center, for which I wrote design resources to support the solutions, as well as case studies focused on certified projects for the isUD website. I was also able to work on several Fair Housing compliance audits and design reviews, which were really exciting and provided feedback to clients to provide spaces that are not only accessible but also as convenient and comfortable as possible for all users. In the last few months, I was involved in a research project focusing on 3D touch models as a wayfinding tool for people with visual impairments. For this project I analyzed the different types of gestures used on a 3D touch model developed in collaboration with Touch Graphics Inc. to activate touch responsiveness. The objective of this research project was to optimize future prototypes and models to make it more usable by various groups of users. 

A plaque showing a building as certified by the isUD program.

Madeleine Niepceron worked with IDEA Center staff to develop design solutions for buildings seeking universal design certification through the Innovative Solutions in Universal Design program.

Madeleine Niepceron has helped designers and developers develop universal design solutions like those pictured above, as part of her work on the IDEA Center’s isUD certification program.

How has this position been valuable to your academic experience and preparation for practice?

I pursued the MArch program in May 2020 and since then I have been associated with the IDEA Center. I’ve gained a deeper insight on the subject and how essential it is to make sure that the design serves and fits the needs of its users to enhance comfort and efficiency rather than the users adjusting to it. My position as a research assistant at the IDEA Center has been extremely advantageous and will with no doubt serve me in my future professional career. I learned a lot about both accessibility requirements in the U.S. and the meaning of inclusion in the built environment. My work at the IDEA Center has also revealed to me the vital role of research in architectural practices, to ensure that the built environment empowers and benefits everyone, especially those who are underrepresented. I am looking forward to using this knowledge in my future endeavours and participating in projects that support and promote social justice, inclusion and design equity.

Please tell us about your thesis. 

“Aging Behind Bars - The impact of space and architecture on older incarcerated individuals in U.S. prisons” explores the many challenges faced by older individuals and the extent to which architecture can alleviate both the physiological and psychological conditions of incarceration. U.S. prisons were never constructed or designed with older prisoner in mind. Yet, today, individuals over the age of 50 make up for more than 20% of the American carceral population, and the older population is steadily increasing. Rehabilitation, one of the universally accepted roles of modern prisons, is not a likely outcome for a good part of the incarcerated population, who will never re-enter society. 

Life in a correctional facility is hard for anyone, but it is especially difficult for older individuals. Many people are working on prison reform and advocating for the implementation of alternative policies and release programs for the older and frailer individuals. The reality is that such changes cannot benefit all older incarcerated individuals and will not come soon enough to improve the plight of the many who could and should benefit from them.

The results of the thesis are presented as an in-depth analysis and critique of selected prison features, specifically intended to serve as a provocation and catalyst for action: How can architects help to ensure humane and fair conditions for older incarcerated individuals?

Madeleine Niepceron's thesis considers how design solutions in U.S. prisons can improve quality of life for older incarcerated individuals. Photos courtesy of Madeleine Niepceron