Understanding Universal Design

As the owner of a residential design build firm, I often meet with potential clients who would like to upgrade, add to, or otherwise improve their existing home rather than move to a new location.  The driving factors can be quite different from one family to another.  While one family may need more space for the kids to sleep or play, another family might need an in-law suite for aging parents or an au pair.  Other projects to consider are ones that add new features to an older home, such as a master suite or a mudroom, two areas often lacking in older homes.  Regardless of the type of project, homeowners usually have their own vision of a project that suits their style and solves their current needs—the “now” issues.  However, homeowners often have a hard time thinking about future needs.  If the plan is to stay in the home for the long run, it is extremely advantageous to consider the long term accessibility and usefulness of the remodel. That’s where universal design comes in.

As defined on Wikipedia, “Universal design (often inclusive design) refers to broad-spectrum ideas meant to produce buildings, products and environments that are inherently accessible to older people, people without disabilities, and people with disabilities.”  When I bring up universal design with potential clients, the response is often predictable–a blank stare or the “are you out of your mind?” look.  That’s because most folks haven’t examined the long term view of their project.  They often just want to solve their “now” problems. However, by looking forward to the distant future while designing a remodel, clients can save precious time and money doing a remodel once that will last a lifetime.  So, let’s talk about universal design!

Most likely, if someone is going to do a major renovation on their home and spend anywhere from $50K- $500K+ on a home remodel project, they are only going to undertake that scale of a renovation once.  With this level of investment, you need to make darn sure you are planning a project that will not only solve your “now” problems but also withstand the test of time.  For example, if you are a couple in your 30s, 40s, or 50s and are planning on a major addition that will be a second floor master suite, have you considered the useful life of that project?  Is this your “forever home”?  How practical will a second floor master bedroom and bathroom be for a couple in their 80s? How will your mobility be at that time?  What if, in a few years, your aging parents need support but do not want to go in to an assisted living facility? Would that master suite easily turn in to an in-law suite? These are just a few of the questions to consider.

Of course, universal design isn’t simply designing everything for one floor living for aging in place.  There are many other concepts that are employed that take into consideration both the aesthetics and functionality of living spaces and environments.   A few examples of universally designed elements to consider for your project are:

  • Smooth, ground level entrances without stairs
  • Wide interior doors (3’0″), hallways, and alcoves with 60″ × 60″ turning space at doors and dead-ends (for potential future wheelchair use)
  • Showers with no curb for entry, and ADA compliant clearances in bathrooms
  • Lever handles for opening doors rather than twisting knobs (for potential future arthritis or other ailments)
  • Light switches with large flat panels rather than small toggle switches
  • Buttons and other controls that can be distinguished by touch
  • Bright and appropriate lighting, particularly task lighting
  • Clear lines of sight to reduce dependence on sound

These examples are just the “tip of the iceberg” if you will, but these are some important things to consider when designing your home project.  You never know what tomorrow may bring that could affect the senses or mobility. Thus, it is smart to prepare for the future now.

If you are considering any type of home renovation project, universal design may or may not apply, but it is something that should at least be considered before you get too far into the process.  One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to invest a large sum of money in your home for a project that will be of little use to you ten years down the road.


Here are some good resources to review for more information:


The Center for Universal Design





If you’ve found your “forever home,” of course you hope and assume that you will be at ease in your home for the rest of your time here. The fact of the matter is that is just not always the case.  Still, by employing techniques of universal design, you can ensure that your home will provide you many years of happiness and comfort and that your remodeling projects will be well worth it.

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