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.