A community centre built on Universal Design principles

Progressive AE - Progressive Architectural Design and Engineering
Country of Implementation
United States of America
North America
Start Year
First published

The Mary Free Bed YMCA is a 36 acre community centre in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The facility is the first building in the world to be certified by the Global Universal Design Commission. Currently, the center has over 200 adaptive sports athletes that access the YMCA for practice, tournaments, and fitness.

Men and women on wheelchairs playing basketball.
Zero steps in the 120,000 square foot facility and dozens of inclusive opportunities for sports and fitness.

Solution details


Michael PERRY
“We don’t have to think about where the handicap entrance is or how we move between levels - even the family locker rooms here are a huge help for us.” Emily Bush, mother of Carson who has spina bifida

Problems Targeted

People with disabilities often, find it difficult to workout or exercise because many community fitness/wellness centres are not designed, or have the proper equipment to meet their needs, notably in the ares of healthy living, wellness, healthy aging, adaptive fitness, nutrition education, and youth leadership.

Solution, Innovation and Impact

The vision for the Mary Free Bed YMCA was to create a campus that would serve as a new standard of collaboration and inclusion while supporting new and innovative programming. The facility was meant to be a model for all future YMCA buildings, both locally and around the country. With zero stairs throughout the 120,000 square foot facility and 36-acre campus, vertical circulation is achieved through a centrally-located ramp that creates equality among users. The ramp also assists in wayfinding, giving people a large architectural feature by which to orient themselves. Color also plays a large role in terms of psychological effect and in guiding people with visual impairments. For example, the contrasting colors of the track lanes make them more visible, and the yellow ramp indicates an important building feature. Other features include a transfer station for the independent use of the pools, slip-resistant flooring, a wheelchair softball field, hearing loops throughout, and specialized filtration and acoustical systems in the aquatic environments.

Funding, Outlook and Transferability

The Mary Free Bed YMCA has been growing in terms of sports membership, programmes, and partnerships. Additionally, the facility has received considerable attention from higher education organizations, rehabilitation hospitals, and accessibility committees – all of which are eager to learn more about Universal Design and possible application to meet their own needs. The facility has the ability to be replicated internationally. Community members are now able to access healthy living services, and the local rehabilitation hospital is using the YMCA as part of its rehabilitation programme. The Mary Free Bed YMCA is financed through membership fees and programme revenues (80 per cent), and grants, donations and fundraising (20 per cent). A second-generation scenario could result in a more substantial rehabilitation hospital component, driving additional revenue from an on-site physician’s practice.



Men and women on wheelchairs playing basketball. Zero steps in the 120,000 square foot facility and dozens of inclusive opportunities for sports and fitness.



Life Story


“It means I can enter at ground level, same as my able-bodied friends.”

My name is Matthew Chaffee and I am a 27-year-old multi-sport wheelchair athlete. As such, I spend a lot of time at the Mary Free Bed YMCA in Grand Rapids for practice and tournaments. Before the YMCA opened, I had never participated on a wheelchair sports team because they just weren’t convenient for me. Now that everything is centrally located at the YMCA, and because I work out there anyway, I participate in basketball, rugby, softball, and handcycle. The Mary Free Bed YMCA is built around the principles of Universal Design. For me, it means I’m able to enter the building at the ground level, same as my able-bodied friends, instead of needing to use a ramp off to the side. Similarly, I’m able to access the building’s various levels via a large ramp that serves as the primary form of vertical circulation. The gym equipment is also more accessible than other workout facilities I’ve belonged to, with seats that slide away, allowing me to gain access from my chair. Another big advantage that speaks to the planning of the YMCA includes a specific wheelchair storage area where I and my teammates can store our sports chairs. This makes getting into and out of the building much easier, eliminating the need to navigate with the extra chair when coming in for practice or a tournament. The most noticeable difference at the Mary Free Bed YMCA is that it feels like it was truly built for everyone. Most buildings that are only compliant to existing laws seem to be designed for the able-bodied, with modifications made afterwards. The difference is amazing and is felt by everyone who enters the facility.

Related information

Solutions with the same:

Country of Implementation

United States of America

Region of Implementation

North America