What is Universal Design? Why Should Every Home Have It?

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In an ideal world, all living spaces would have Universal Design because it is designed for all and makes everyone’s life more comfortable, efficient, accessible and safer. Find out why your home and especially your aging parents’ home should be universally designed too.

What is Universal Design?

Simply defined, Universal Design is making a living space or environment easier to use for anyone of any age, size, shape, or functional ability. This includes young or old, short or tall, underweight or overweight and everyone in between. It also includes those who move without difficulty or who need an assistive device such as a walker, wheelchair, or cane.

Principles of Universal Design

  • The design is inclusive and useful for everyone.
  • Features are easy to use with little to no instruction needed.
  • The design maximizes safety and eliminates possible hazards.
  • Size and space are adequate for a variety of body types to perform a variety of necessary tasks.
  • The design requires little physical effort and limits fatigue.
  • The design accommodates a large variety of abilities and preferences. 

Who is Universal Design for?

Universal Design is for EVERYONE! The concept can be used in residential, commercial, public, or private spaces. The critical aspect is that it is person-focused, allowing the most people to use and function well in the space without special modifications for their unique circumstance or situation.

It’s a user-friendly space that has no barriers to the features present. The space has easy-to-use elements that allow any person to participate without having to modify his or her actions. And the space can be used by the greatest number of people with the least amount of functional difficulty.

Disability-friendly

People who have a disability will be able to use a universally designed space with less effort and greater independence. 

Aging in Place friendly

Universal Design is sometimes considered to only be for older people. Although it is beneficial to those who want to stay in their own homes as they get older, a concept known as Aging in Place, it is just as useful for grand kids coming to visit their aging grandparents.

Multi-generational friendly

It is becoming more common to have several generations of family members living under the same roof. What works for the kids may not work for the grandparents. And what works for the homeowners may not work for their parents. But in a universally designed home, the features work for everyone who lives there. It accommodates the needs of a newborn baby, a grandma who just turned 80, and everyone in between.   

Why was Universal Design developed?

Medical advances over the last 100 years have allowed more people to survive illnesses and injuries, but that meant that many were now living with disabilities. This growing segment of the population demanded more products and home modifications. They had specific needs that required solutions so that they could live as independently as they had before their illness or injury.    

The concept of handicapped accessibility and design grew in the 1960s as civil rights for everyone were accelerating. Rather than focusing on those who had differences, the thought began to shift to spaces and environments that would be useful for everyone and not just those with a disability.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed and required public and private commercial spaces to make modifications to allow people with disabilities to be able to access those environments. Some typical features mandated by the Act include sidewalk cutouts to eliminate curbs, ramps into the first floor of buildings, and wheelchair accessible bathrooms.  

Accessible design to modify spaces for the disabled eventually evolved into Universal Design that included useful design for everyone, not just design focused on people with disabilities. Ron Mace, an architect, and professor at North Carolina State University, worked tirelessly to advance the concept of Universal Design in the 1980s and 1990s. He helped launch the federally-funded Center for Accessible Housing, which became the Center for Universal Design. 

These concepts have gradually expanded to include more locations and types of activities. In the early 2000s, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) began to include recreation and play areas.

Standard features of Universal Design 

  • At least one zero-step entrance – This would be an entry point that may have a ramp or other feature such as an elevator, which would require no steps to reach the first level of the building.
  • Single level living space – The home could have multiple floors and accommodate several generations of a family with varying functional abilities. But one level would need to have a zero-step entrance, a full bathroom, and bedroom space for anyone who would need it.   
  • Wider doorways and hallways – Doorways and hallways need to be wider than usual to accommodate assistive devices such as walkers and wheelchairs. Wider doorways and hallways also make it easier for someone to stand next to another person to help them.  
  • Accessible controls – Lowered light switches, HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) controls and higher electrical outlets and USB ports should be located at a height that can be reached by someone using in a wheelchair. Accessible height is different from the placement of these controls in ordinary homes. 
  • Convenience and ease of use – Features, such as a sensor faucet that does not require the use of hands and automatic doors that open without intervention or by pushing a plate on the wall, are helpful to anyone at any time. Many public or commercial buildings have such features, but as technology increases and prices decrease, these types of modifications are becoming more affordable to homeowners.  

Why you should embrace Universal Design

Universal Design is functional

As discussed above, a home designed with Universal Design concepts will be much more functional or user friendly than other homes because it is focused on the human experience. The home will be safer, more convenient, and more comfortable.

Universal Design is affordable

Universal design is most economically incorporated before construction begins as the building layout can dramatically reduce the need for future modifications. For example, in a multi-story home, if closets are positioned on top of each other or “stacked,” an elevator could be added in that location in the future. By removing the divisions between the closet floors, an elevator can be inserted. The cost of the elevator would be considerably less because the structural elements were incorporated when the home was initially built.  

If you want to incorporate aspects of Universal Design into your current home, it’s not too late. You can add many Universal Design concepts affordably into a remodeling project. Many products and materials needed are sold at your local big-box home improvement store. 

Universal Design is beautiful

Many people think that accessible or Universal Design will look institutional, like a hospital or nursing home. It can, but it certainly doesn’t have to. With the enormous variety of products and features available today for the average homeowner or residential home remodeler, achieving beautiful design with useful function is easier than it’s ever been.  

Imagine your bathroom with a lovely tile design, teak wood flip down bench, grab bars incorporated into a towel bar or storage shelf, and a waterfall massaging handheld shower. With proper design consideration and planning, an attractive spa-like shower can cost the same as a utilitarian space.

Universal Design makes a better home & better life

Human focused + Better function + Better safety = Better life.

What’s not to like about Universal Design? Think about how you could incorporate more Universal Design concepts into your home. Any change, big or small, that makes your home more convenient can be considered Universal Design.

Always be on the lookout for ways to make your home function better and more comfortably for everyone who lives there. As a bonus, Universal Design also makes your home “visitable” for your guests.

About the Author

As a home health Physical Therapist for over 20 years, I help clients solve home dilemmas so they can live their best life.

I'm here to use that same problem-solving expertise and training as a Certified Aging in Place Specialist to help you create an optimized home that's forward-thinking and future-ready to support you and your loved ones well for a lifetime.

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