When John Salmen and his wife, Ann Scher, were shopping for a new home in the Washington, D.C., area, they sought a house that would grow and change with them. "We wanted a home that would serve us regardless of our stage in life, without sacrificing style for utility," Salmen, an architect, says. He found a circa-1910 Arts and Crafts fixer-upper in a Takoma Park, Maryland, neighborhood. An ambitious three-year renovation converted the historic house so that it can accommodate the couple―and possibly their children or their parents―at any age. They created easy-access stepless entries, widened doorways for ease of movement, and stacked closets so that they could more easily install an elevator.
Salmen and Scher are like many other people who want to age in place―comfortably grow old in the home they've spent years enjoying. As a result of that desire, a new design concept has gained popularity over the past few decades. Universal design (UD) is based on the belief that any living space or product should be usable by the widest group of people possible, without complicated plans or features, for the longest time possible. Its genius is its simplicity. When done right, UD is nearly invisible. "The highest compliment we hear is when people say they didn't realize subtle changes, such as wider doorways or a stepless entry, are UD," says Roy Wendt, president of Wendt Builders, in Atlanta.
Universal design originated with the need for barrier-free access in commercial settings like office buildings, but it later evolved into an all-inclusive philosophy for homes and products. "A common myth about UD is that it's only geared toward the elderly or those with physical challenges," says Richard Duncan, senior project manager with The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, which was founded by Ronald Mace, an architect and wheelchair user who recognized the need for accessibility and user-friendliness in homes. "But UD is really about design that makes life easier, safer, and more comfortable for everyone."
UD is a commonsense approach: For example, if you build a house with a sloped walkway instead of steps, you accommodate everyone from parents pushing a stroller to visitors with impaired mobility. When you replace a faucet that has separate hot and cold knob handles with a lever mechanism, you can nudge it on when your hands are dirty or if you have diminished hand strength. And if you choose a floor plan with a master bed and bath on the ground floor, it may help you―or an aging parent―avoid daily treks up and down stairs.
"A house with UD features also has enhanced marketability because you can sell your home to people of all ages and abilities," says Susan Mack, with Homes for Easy Living Universal Design Consultants.
Whether you're remodeling, building, or working to make your existing home more comfortable and efficient, here are some expert tips to introduce universal design to your living space.
If you're updating an existing space: "Even if you're not building new or remodeling, there's plenty you can do to make your living space more comfortable, accessible, and functional," says Cynthia A. Leibrock, ASID, a UD expert in Livermore, Colorado.
• Make everyday tasks simple. Replace doorknobs with lever handles, which require less effort to open. "Swap conventional toggle light switches for lighted rocker switches, which are visible in the dark and can be tapped on with an elbow if your hands are full," Duncan says.
• Reorganize storage. Retrofit cabinets with full-extension roller slides and wire baskets so you'll have easier access to the back, advises Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, CBD, a UD consultant in Brookfield, Connecticut. Store heavy items within comfortable reach; use high cabinets to store seasonal and seldom-used objects.
• Arrange your kitchen into work zones. Organize to save steps, such as storing flatware in a drawer near the dishwasher for quick unloading, says Leibrock.
• Choose new appliances wisely. Ranges with controls at the front eliminate reaching over hot burners. Select side-by-side refrigerators and front-loading washers and dryers elevated on platforms for easy access, Leibrock says.
• Improve lighting. Add task lighting under kitchen cabinets, path lights outside, and night-lights in bathrooms. Replace lamps or fixtures with those allowing higher wattages to fully illuminate rooms, says Eric McRoberts, AIA, a partner with RLPS Architects in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
If you're remodeling or building new: "UD isn't expensive. The cost is in the design, not the fabrication," says Salmen. If planned from the ground up, you'll spend an estimated one to two percent of total costs to introduce UD features.
• Make entering your home easy. "At least one entryway should be stepless," Wendt says. If you prefer front steps for aesthetic reasons, plan a barrier-free route elsewhere, such as through the garage.
• Choose wider doors. "Those that are at least 42 inches wide lend a more spacious feel, plus they offer better maneuverability for tasks such as rearranging furniture or carrying laundry," Duncan says. Pocket doors―panels that slide along a track hidden between walls―are another good choice because they create unobstructed doorways.
• Create adaptable living spaces. Subject to local codes, try to position light switches between 36 to 48 inches above the floor and outlets between 18 to 24 inches above the floor to limit bending and allow accessibility by seated individuals and people of all heights.
• Plan for flexibility in the kitchen. Install counters at multiple heights to fit various people and tasks. A counter that's six to seven inches lower than the standard 36 inches accommodates a seated person or a child, while a 40- to 42-inch-high section works well as a serving center or when you're decorating a cake.
• Rethink appliance layout. Install modular cooktops, which allow you to customize your cooking area with individual components, such as a grill, pasta cooker, or wok, and place them where they're most accessible. Choose wall ovens, which are easier to reach into if you're pregnant or have back trouble. Place the microwave at waist level so you don't have to reach overhead for hot foods. Raise dishwashers six to 10 inches off the floor, or consider dishwasher drawers to reduce the need for bending and stooping, says Jane K. Langmuir, an architect and UD expert based in Providence, Rhode Island, and Los Angeles.
• Build in efficiency and safety. Select full-extension pullout drawers and racks in lower cabinets so you can reach items stashed in back. Choose C- or D-shaped pulls on cabinets because they're easier to grasp than knobs. "Consider a curbless shower, which has a flat threshold to prevent tripping," Duncan says. Maximize lighting with skylights, recessed lighting under stair treads, and extra lighting in potential danger zones like the head and foot of stairs and landings.