One year all-white is all the rage; the next, it’s all about shadowy tones. Home design trends come and go (remember Hollywood Regency?), but one that by definition is meant for the long haul is universal design.
What is universal design, you ask? In a nutshell, it’s a home that’s set up to be accessible to anyone, regardless of difficulties with mobility or vision. This means it’s easier to navigate for the elderly or people with disabilities.
Also known as inclusive design, barrier-free design, design-for-all, and lifespan design, this concept was introduced in the 1950s and got a big push in the 1970s with the burgeoning disability rights movement. In 1992, the Americans with Disabilities Act required that all public buildings be reasonably renovated to accommodate people with disabilities (e.g., ramps and larger entryways for wheelchairs). And as the baby boomers start to enter their golden years, they’ve begun embracing the idea of universal design in residential homes, too.
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How to incorporate universal design
Probably the biggest misconception about universal design is that it’s “hospital-like.”
“Typically you’d never know a space is created with universal design in mind, but when done right it should function and look great,” explains Patricia Davis Brown, an interior designer and National Kitchen & Bath Association insider.
Universal design options can be easy fixes (like installing lever-style handles on doors and faucets that are easier to operate) or full-on renovations (like lowering the kitchen counter height or making it adjustable). Here are some other basic features common in universal design homes:
- Single-level floor plans: This is for people in wheelchairs, people with impaired vision, or the elderly who might slip or fall on stairs.
- Curbless showers with grab bars: A curbless shower makes it easier to get in and out, regardless of whether or not you use a wheelchair. And since anyone can slip in the shower, Karen Betz of Elite Kitchen & Bath recommends installing grab bars in the bathroom for all ages.
- Wider entryways, hallways, and clearances: These are to accommodate wheelchairs. Spaces such as the kitchen or dining room should especially be considered. As the natural gathering places of the house, they should have plenty of space for everyone to mingle comfortably.
- Multilevel countertops: These can accommodate young children as well as those who use a wheelchair. This goes mostly for kitchen countertops, so anyone can help prepare a meal.
- Drawers, storage, and appliances at a comfortable height: These might accommodate someone in a wheelchair or with other disabilities. “Properly positioned appliances will help avoid deep bending and reaching that might be physically demanding,” Betz says.
- Proper lighting throughout the house: “Expanded lighting throughout the house increases visibility and safety for family and guests, especially children and baby boomers,” explains Betz. You might want to look into smart home lighting systems where lights turn on automatically when you enter a room.
Who should incorporate universal design?
Owners who consider their current home to be their forever home should consider making some universal design upgrades that will allow them to manage once mobility becomes more challenging. But even younger homeowners may consider adding some aspects of universal design if an elderly or disabled family member moves in.
And if you anticipate selling your home, Brown says, “It is smart to consider universal design when building a new home or renovating, which works well for resale in the future.”