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Universal Home Design


Universal Design (UD) sounds like just another style, but it is something much deeper. It's a design philosophy that shapes the way a home functions rather than the way it looks. Although often associated with homes for disabled homeowners, UD is not beneficial solely for those in wheelchairs. Elements of UD can make life more manageable for everyone. And, it applies to almost everything about a home, from the handle on the front door to the faucet on the kitchen sink to the shower in the bathroom.

This concept of universal design goes by several names. There's UD, of course, but also "aging in place," "accessible living," and "barrier-free living." Universal design may be the best term simply because this philosophy can be applied to any building.

Sometimes overlooked is this key quality: A UD room can be as attractive and comfortable as any other. If a space is awkward or unrefined, UD is not to blame.

Principles of Universal Design

Developed largely by architects, product designers, and engineers at The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, UD is based on seven main principles:
  • Equitable use. The design is useful for all users.
  • Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • Simple and intuitive. The design's features are easy to understand.
  • Perceptible information. Features can be used with little or no instruction -- through reading, hearing, or touching.
  • Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and helps users avoid potentially dangerous actions.
  • Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently and comfortably.
  • Size and space for approach and use. The design's features can accommodate people of all sizes, shapes and abilities.

In the real world, many of these design principles go unnoticed unless you look for them. For example: Doorways and hallways are a bit wider than normal; latches and appliances are fitted with controls that are easier to operate; and bathrooms and kitchens are roomier and user-friendly. Instead of slippery round doorknobs that need an awkward twist to open, you'll find easy-to-use levers. Light switches with large flat-panel controls might replace the small switches, and they may be placed a few inches lower on the wall. Exterior door thresholds gain a lower profile, smoothing the way for everyone coming in or going out.

Adding Accessibility to Exteriors and Entryways

When you mention universal (or accessible) design, most people immediately think of aging in place and wheelchair ramps. In reality, there's much more to creating a home that welcomes all visitors than simply adding handicapped access. Ramps may be part of a stylish UD home, but they're not the only part.

For the home's exterior, choose low-maintenance materials for siding, decking, landscaping, and even gutters. Long-lasting, prefinished siding means less cumbersome repainting; composite decking means never refinishing again; the right shrubs and plants can mean less trimming and watering, and gutter guards eliminate an often-dangerous fall cleaning chore.

For the path to the house, an architect embracing UD concepts will create a smooth walkway to the front door that anyone can take, regardless of their overall mobility. There will be a way to enter without using stairs, though this does not necessarily mean a ramp. Some designers prefer, if possible, to shape the landscape to allow a barrier-free pathway. Others may put in a ramp, integrating it into the overall exterior in a manner that is both practical and unobtrusive.

At the entry, an architect or designer will use specific UD principles and standards to guide decisions. For example, the front door should be at least 35 inches wide and the door handle must be a lever. The change in level from the exterior entry floor to the interior floor will be no more than 1/2 inch. And the entry door will be protected against rain and weather by an overhead covering -- a roof extension, a broad overhang, an awning.

These guidelines make sense for everyone. A wider door makes it much easier to bring in large boxes from your car. A dry spot at the front door makes it more pleasant to find the keys on a rainy day. And wouldn't you appreciate a reasonably flat threshold if you were returning home with a sprained ankle?

Other entry measures to consider: no-slip flooring, an easy-to-reach doorbell, and a motion- or light-sensor lamp that switches on and off automatically.

Making Bathrooms Safer for Everyone

Too many bathrooms are cramped, awkward and inconvenient -- and not just for those in wheelchairs or aging in place homeowners. That's why this room is such a prime candidate for universal-design (UD) modifications. The typical bathroom offers less-than-optimal design for almost everyone. Vanities may be too low (or high); tubs often lack effective grab bars; and dual-handle faucets require two hands to adjust.

Fortunately, it isn't difficult to improve on these design flaws. Here's how a UD approach can make any bathroom a more comfortable experience for all:

Doors and floors. The doorway should be at least 32 inches wide, though 36 inches is better. A 1/2-inch threshold is good, no threshold bump is even better. Put lighting controls at the entry and within easy reach for everyone. Consider including motion-sensor lighting, which allows hands-free operation. Always use slip-resistant flooring. Though not required, under-floor electric heating will make chilly mornings much more pleasant.

Vanity area. The countertop would be raised to 34 inches from the floor. This will save back strain for most, compared to the current standard of 30 inches. Faucets should have levers, with a single-handle model being best. The sink should sit toward the front of the vanity for ease-of-use. Homeowners desiring the full UD treatment will also allow knee space under the sink to accommodate a person using a wheelchair.

Tub. There are walk-in tubs with sidewall doors and built-in seating to accommodate people with mobility problems (and everyone else). If you prefer a more traditional tub, UD rules require about four feet of space in front of the tub.

The best tub is one that is easy to get in and out of. Avoid models with high sides that require an awkward climb to enter or exit. Also, step-down tubs can be a tricky to navigate, even if handrails are installed.

Equip tub-filler controls with an anti-scald feature and levers that can easily be reached from outside the tub. Always include grab bars positioned where they offer effective assistance. The installation point for bars must have a secure mounting platform. Attachment to drywall only is not secure.

Shower. The most stylish showers today incorporate many UD features. They offer open access without doors or curtains. There's no curb at the entry. Water controls have an anti-scald feature and are positioned near the entry to allow water to be turned on before stepping in. The shower flow is gentle and there is a hand shower and perhaps a variety of sprayers attached to the walls. The floor is slip-resistant.

Making a Kitchen Accessible to Everyone

There's plenty of moving about, reaching, lifting, and such in any kitchen. In a universal-design (UD) kitchen, all this activity is much easier for everyone -- from the chef in a wheelchair to the fittest family member.

Space to maneuver is an essential ingredient for every kitchen design. A 5x5-foot open area within the prime work zone allows cooks (and their helpers) to move freely.

Many UD kitchen features are similar to ones used in an accessible bathroom. There should be plenty of lighting with easy-to-reach controls, slip-resistant flooring, low or no thresholds and countertops set at a comfortable height for those most in need of accommodation. If most of the countertops surfaces are 34 inches above the floor, the kitchen might also include a work surface at 30 inches, with kneehole space for accessibility.

Because many households have members with special needs, major manufacturers are producing appealing UD products, such as low-profile sinks and touchless faucets. When mounted above a kneehole, the sink allows a person in a wheelchair to pull in close. Similarly, a work center can be created by lowering one section of countertop to 30 inches and leaving an opening below to allow wheelchair access.

Such stylish countertop materials as granite, solid-surfacing and laminate are good for a UD installation because they are easy to clean. With any kitchen, landing spots and food-prep surfaces near ranges, cooktop, ovens, and refrigerators are essential. In a UD kitchen, accessible positioning is key for these handy surfaces.

As in the bathroom, a single-lever-controlled faucet with an anti-scald feature is a good choice. Installing a gooseneck faucet with a pull-out sprayer nozzle adds convenience that everyone can appreciate.

Dishwasher access can be improved by raising the unit six to nine inches above the floor, a height which makes loading and unloading a snap.

Tools, products, materials, techniques, building codes and local regulations change; therefore, Lowe's assumes no liability for omissions, errors or the outcome of any project. The reader must always exercise reasonable caution, follow current codes and regulations that may apply, and is urged to consult with a licensed professional if in doubt about any procedures. Please read our terms of use.