The Basics of Universal Design

Whether it's a kitchen, a bathroom or an entire home, universal design improves the living space for the young, disabled, aging or — the rarest of people — perfectly average. You will also tap into an emerging market.

October 31, 2005

Seven Principles of Universal Design

Whether it's a kitchen, a bathroom or an entire home, universal design improves the living space for everyone: the young, disabled, aging or — the rarest of people — perfectly average. In the meantime, you will also tap into an emerging market.

"People still think universal design is for older people and handicapped accessibility, but slowly we are educating them that it involves every single member of the family, every age, every physical ability, every size," says Bryce Jacob, a universal design specialist with Dave Fox Remodeling of Columbus, Ohio.

These semi-custom universal cabinets maintain the appearance of standard cabinets, but they also can adapt to accommodate users who want or need to sit while working.
Photo by Susan Mack

"Compared to 15 years ago, there is a lot more awareness of the issue and the possibilities, thanks to a lot of industry publications and programs," says Richard Duncan, senior project manager with the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University.

According to Susan Mack, president of Homes for Easy Living, a California-based consulting firm, consumers are seeing many elements of universal design as beneficial to everyone, with just a handful of options applied only in special situations.

Many universal design features require only additional planning, not different materials, so cost is often not an issue.

"Unless you have someone with very specific needs, the cost is minimal when we are talking about simple things that make life a little easier," says Glen Borkowski of Kraftwerks Remodeling Inc. in Tinley Park, Ill. "Over the course of a renovation, that may project out to 2 or 3 percent" of the total remodeling budget.

Rooms for everyone

Universal design features can be incorporated into nearly every room in the home. Here are a few of the major features to consider.

Lighting: Eyesight worsens with age, making lighting one of the easiest features to sell. Think long-term to ensure consistent light through the room while reducing glare and decreasing shadows. Make sure you include enough switches for the convenience of occupants with restricted movement. Also, maintain flexibility in the lighting system so it can grow and change with the occupants.

"One of the things we really emphasize a lot is lighting," Borkowski says. "If the homeowners are worried [there will be too much light], we can put them on a dimmer. But 10 or 20 years from now, they are going to be glad we gave them the capacity for more lighting."

For safety reasons, improved lighting is especially important in stairways, hallways and entryways, regardless of the clients' age or vision.

Doors and entryways: Wider doors (at least 32 inches, but preferably 36 inches) that accommodate walkers and wheelchairs are becoming so popular that they may one day be standard for front entrances. Some clients also appreciate lever handles instead of doorknobs, as levers are easier for arthritis sufferers to use.

Consider replacing the front steps with a ramp that makes the home more accessible not only to the elderly but also to baby strollers, heavy luggage, furniture dollies, crutches and wheelchairs. These ramps don't have to be institutional looking. Jacob designs ramps that are very gradual and are often built of brick or stone to accent a beautifully landscaped yard.

Curbless or roll-in showers allow easy access for everyone in the home, especially those who are unable to move from a wheelchair.
Photo by Susan Mack

Bathrooms: For a universal bathroom, install a grab bar in the shower or tub. Replace shower door tracks, which restrict movement in and out of the tub, with a trackless system. In the case of a stand-up shower, remodelers can also install a curbless or roll-in entry to allow easier access for those with less mobility.

Another option is a "transfer" shower, which easily accommodates both the able-bodied and those in wheelchairs. This type of shower can be built from individual components or purchased as a complete module with a seat, grab bars and controls. Integral or fold-up seats may be helpful. Threshold-less designs allow easy access.

You may also advise homeowners to install a high-rise or "comfort-height" toilet. An 18-inch high commode can easily accommodate someone transferring from a wheelchair or an average height person, but keep in mind that it may not be right for shorter residents.

Kitchens: Adjustable cabinets allow under-counter kneespace for people in wheelchairs or those who need to be seated because of back or leg problems. Similar benefits are obtained with pullout shelves, which provide accessible work surfaces and storage for all household members. Some adjustable cabinet systems are expensive compared to fixed models. However, moderately priced styles are available, and the investment can make the home appealing to many homeowners, adding value and marketability.

The Ezyfold door control unit, essentially a specialty hinge, allows bifold base-cabinet doors to open fully, maximizing clear kneespace. Häfele offers hardware that, via remote control or manual crank, adjusts the height of wall cabinets and/or countertops. AD-AS has a modular system of base cabinet segments, countertops and wall cabinets mounted on vertical tracks that can be manually adjusted or motorized.

Countertop heights can be varied, with lower sections allowing children to help or allowing adults to sit while preparing meals. For this, the best height is 28 inches to 32 inches, with seated areas about 16 inches. Contrasting counter colors and surface textures will help distinguish different areas of the kitchen for the visually impaired, while raised edges can be added to prevent spills.

A side-by-side refrigerator and a stove with front-mounted controls allow great access for those in a wheelchair or with limited mobility. Place microwaves or wall ovens 31 inches off the floor, within easy reach. Elevate dishwashers 6 to 8 inches off the floor and make them accessible from both the right and left.

Not all technologies are meant for all clients, however. "Some universal design features should only be viewed as options, depending on the clients," Mack warns. "For example, if you have an 85-year-old frail lady sitting on the edge of a high-rise toilet and her feet don't reach the ground, then you have done the wrong thing."

Today, tomorrow, and beyond

Some homeowners associate universal design features with aging, and are reluctant to acknowledge their own frailty. Manufacturers are helping remodelers to remove the stigma of universal design by improving product appearance.

"The people who manufacture the products have done a really good job in the last five years of making them a lot more decorative," Borkowski says.

After years of producing cold, steel equipment that looks like it belongs in a hospital, manufacturers are producing items that catch a homeowner's eye for their warmth and creativity.

"It used to be there were very few manufacturers that I could select from," Mack says, "but now I have more options. If you design something to be beautiful, it's going to be very marketable."

Borkowski says almost all his clients, few of whom are elderly, request some kind of universal design features

"The average age person we work for is probably mid-40s to late 50s. They are empty nesters, and they've got some money because the kids are gone. Their attitude is 'It's about me now,'" he says. "In the general course of remodeling kitchens and bathrooms, we always incorporate small items to keep an eye toward today, as well as 10 or 20 years down the road."

Some consumers are approaching remodelers about universal design projects thanks to the outreach efforts of the American Association of Retired Persons and the NAHB Remodelors Council Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) designation program.

"We get a lot of phone calls from AARP people, and most of them do not have serious physical limitations requiring specific remodeling," Borkowski says. "They are just aware of the fact that it's going to make their life a little easier, and it will allow them to stay in their home as long as they can."

In part, the growth of universal design is simply due to the aging population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 59 million people were 55 years or older in 2000, and more than 34 million of those were 65 or older. Those numbers are expected to swell over the next decade as the baby boomers become seniors.

Because of high housing costs in many parts of the country, many baby boomers are choosing to adapt their homes for future use rather than move. As a result, what has been considered a niche market has the potential to be a very big market.

"We are sort of at the early-adopter stage of universal design," Jacob says, "but it seems like we are about to cross that chasm to get into the mainstream because more and more people are seeing it does make their lives easier."

The Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH,, is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.


Seven Principles of Universal Design

To help develop a better definition and guidelines for universal design, the Center for Universal Design advocates seven principles:

  1. Equitable Use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  2. Flexibility in Use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  3. Simple and Intuitive: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level.
  4. Perceptible Information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for Error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  6. Low Physical Effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use regardless of user's body size, posture or mobility.

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