Universal Design: Staying Safe with Cutting Edge Design

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When Alex Armstrong and her husband Jerry downsized from a 4-floor Georgetown townhome to a downtown DC 2-bedroom condominium (six blocks from the office), they were delighted to have an apartment requiring less upkeep, but realized that renovations needed to be made.

“The prior owners had made the apartment very dark. We needed more lighting and practical features such as grab bars in one of the bathrooms,” said Alex.  “When we reviewed our needs with a designer, the list grew.”

Universal design, once associated with features such as wheel chair ramps, added years after a home was built to aid the disabled, has become an integral part of the formula for easy living. While the theory behind the movement has always been that making homes safer, and spaces more accessible enhances lives, these days securing the homefront can be a high style proposition.

Ask any lighting professional and he or she will describe pleas from owners of new homes for more light in walk-in closets, in halls, in bathrooms and even in living rooms. One reason might be that homes are not necessarily built with enough lighting. Another reason is that many of us just need more light to see because we’re getting older. Whatever the reason, the marketplace is recognizing limitations of the human condition with design concepts that make living easier for all ages.

Universal design dates back to the early 1990s and was named by Ron Mace, a North Carolina architect and paraplegic. The Americans with Disabilities Act was one of the first widespread pieces of legislation to begin requiring changes to public spaces to provide access to the disabled, but the idea of the home for easy living was slower to catch on in the single-family home market. Even so, this goal that some call “aging in place,” is, according to one survey by AARP, something that 72% of the population 45 and older want to accomplish. The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) reports that nearly two-thirds of homeowners want to enjoy their senior years in their current home.

With home prices soaring and the tax benefit of staying in a home often outweighing the cost of moving, remodels are popular. With new construction, the idea is to improve the design of homes to make them more usable, safer and appealing to people with a wide range of abilities throughout their life spans.

When the concept was associated with disabilities only, the able-bodied public did not respond. Many design modifications were institutional and the concept of safety and style was not yet linked. Over time, as the message morphed into lifestyle enhancement for all ages, universal design filtered into the mainstream with a slew of attractive appliances and building products that make life easier.  The perception has evolved from making life easier for those with handicaps to making homes safer and more attractive for everyone.

Bathrooms are perfect settings for universal design. With water on the floor and hard surfaces everywhere, these rooms can be slippery and dangerous. By all means, boost safety with grab bars, long a design staple in European luxury hotels. No longer appearing like hospital room fixtures, attractive and functional grab bars – some hold towels or feature shelving - should be included in the design of shower and toilet placement. As one more means of preventing falls, consider buying higher toilets. Bathroom remodels should include curbless showers with non-slip flooring, which allows homeowners to walk in and out without having to step over a threshold. Get rid of throw rugs that can be tripped over. For fixtures, gooseneck faucets that swivel are sweet! Vanity countertops are being bumped a few inches higher – to 36 inches from the old standard of 24 - for less bending.

As America’s population ages, the concepts behind universal design and aging in place are becoming standard practice. As you walk through luxury home models, many features such as the rocker style light switches or lever door handles throughout, do not jump out as being anything but streamlined and sensible. But these and an array of details, including the wide doorways, rounded corner walls, and easy-to-reach light switches and outlets, are there for a reason.

Contemporary kitchens feature modular cabinet designs that can be raised or lowered without appearing awkward. Instead of swing-out doors, cabinet doors that slide sideways to open or tambour doors that slide up and down are easier to maneuver around. Instead of shelves, pull-out drawers that glide open with the flick of a finger eliminate the need to root through a dark space on hands and knees. In any kitchen, under-cabinet lighting is a great solution for task lighting.

The United States used to be the home of the round door knob. No longer. Levers are available in an incredible array of styles and make sense for people of all ages and abilities, not just those dealing with arthritis.  On cabinetry, rather than round knobs, look for longer and wider drawer pulls.

From room to room, contrasting colors can be used to alert the eye to changes in floor levels, an important safety consideration. When selecting carpeting, a densely woven low pile is the only type that a wheel chair will travel over with ease. A tight loop or a very tight pile for a smooth transition between tile and carpeting, no more than 3/8th of an inch, will make walking easier for someone with a cane or a walker.

Lifestyle convenience has found its way to home décor. Window treatments are an essential ingredient in the interior design of any home. On the market for a long while, motor powered draw draperies and shades have improved dramatically over time. It’s quite a luxury to be lying in bed or reclining on the sofa and adjusting the draperies with a remote control!

The clutter-free lifestyle is a shining example of the drumbeat being heard. Most accidents occur in the home. Clearing clutter prevents tripping and falling, and smart storage increases the holding capacity of any space. Once a novelty, closet systems are now recognized as essential in most home building projects.

Building and design professions have embraced all phases of the movement. They recognize the sophistication of today’s homebuyer with smart products that are attractive and not institutional in appearance. A few years back, the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) introduced a universal design slogan, “Safe Spaces in Beautiful Places.” Several years ago, the National Home Building Association (NHBA) formed a joint venture with AARP and developed a general contractor designation for Certified Aging in Place Specialists (CAPS). Practitioners are well-versed in the concepts of universal design, and most report that it is an easy sell.

For the architects, designers and builders behind the movement, universal design is for everyone. We recommend making some of these changes before you are required to do so. Alex Armstrong sees the connection between universal design and easy living. “This is more than easy-to-reach convenience,” she said. “It’s good design.”


- Mary Lou Smart, RP®

Mary Lou Left x800


Universal Design Kitchen
Levers are available in an incredible array of styles and make sense for people of all ages and abilities, not just those dealing with arthritis. On cabinetry, rather than round knobs, look for longer and wider drawer pulls.