The Concept of Universal Design

As our longevity increases, the concept of Universal Design has become a key component for many remodeling projects. By definition, Universal Design is ‘the design of products and environment to be usable by all people, including seniors and those with disabilities, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.’

According to the American Housing Surveys, baby boomers are the first to undergo remodeling and home improvement projects that are specifically designed to create safe and comfortable living spaces to meet their changing needs as they age.

Universal Design, often also referred to as inclusive design, strives to make life as simple as possible for everyone by creating an efficient, cost-effective environment. The goal is to improve lifestyle and welfare for all ages and abilities.

Some key features included in Universal Design include:

  1. No-step entryways
    1. By removing stairs, everyone is able to access the home and its main living spaces.
  2. Zero-threshold entries
    1. Thresholds that are flush with the floor allow easy wheelchair access and also removes obstacles that may result in tripping.
  3. Installation of varied-height counters
    1. Multi-level countertops allow ease of use for both tall and short people, as well as those in wheelchairs.
  4. Defining counter edges and elimination of sharp corners
    1. The use of contrasting colors and bevelled or curved counter edges make multiple level counter spaces safe.

Other merits of Universal Design are simple and functional, adding to a home’s usability and design well into the future. Concepts such as one-story living, wide doorways and hallways, ample floor space and quality lighting are all key elements that dramatically improve a home’s overall efficiency for all who reside there.

One-story living: By eliminating stairs and multiple levels, everyone is able to utilize a home’s entire living space easily.

Wide doorways: Ensuring doors are 32 to 36 inches in width ensures people who require wheelchairs, walkers or other physical assistance can easily pass. It also makes moving large pieces furniture a much simpler task.

Wide hallways: Cramped hallways are confining and present issues when it comes to the flow of ‘traffic’ in a home. To provide ease of movement, all halls should be 36 to 42 inches wide.

Ample floor space: People in wheelchairs have the space needed to turn and move about while everyone benefits from more open living area in which to move about.

Quality lighting: In addition to allowing everyone to see better, it also assists those with poor vision. Using the three types of lighting in your home (ambient, task, and accent) is a great way to achieve this. (link to 11/29 blog about Lighting your home)

Safety features: Ensure floors, showers and bathtubs are nonslip to prevent falls. Handrails in key areas such as bathrooms are also important.

Convenience and ease of use: Forego standard light switches for ‘rocker’ switches and exchange doorknobs with levers. These not only make life simpler for those with reduced hand mobility, but also for everyone else (try opening a standard door knob when your hands are full)! Incorporating smart home technology can also augment convenience by turning on and off lights when someone enters or leaves a room.

As baby boomers age, Universal Design is becoming a concept that is important to maintaining simplicity and accessibility in their homes. It is also one that many designers are incorporating at the outset of construction. This flexible, intuitive and ‘futuristic’ model is one that benefits everyone, allowing a home to fit a multitude of needs and lifestyles.