By Paul Rogers
It’s difficult to argue with the logic of universal design. If a home can be designed to be safer, ergonomically superior, easier in which to maneuver, more intuitive and, in general, equally efficient for a healthy 10-year-old, a fully capable 35-year-old, a 55-year-old with arthritis, a blind 75-year-old or a mobility-challenged 100-year-old, why not do so?
Universal design has come a long way since grab bars and comfort-height toilet seats pretty much summed up the concept for most folks. In fact, the user-friendly features have become sought-after amenities, viewed less as a hospital-grade accommodation to disability than a wise upgrade that makes a home livable for a generous lifetime.
Designer Maria Stapperfenne says she expects universal design features to continue to increase in popularity among customers.
“It’s universal design for comfort’s sake,” says Stapperfenne, a certified living-in-place professional designer. “The trend is, I want to be comfortable.”
Universal design is human-centered design, based on the real-world differences between how people move, how strong they are, how large or small they are, and how their abilities and needs change throughout their lives, says Susan Mack, president, Homes for Easy Living Universal Design Consultants.
“If I am doing my job well, you will not know that the home is a universally-designed home. What I’m trying to do will be seamless,” Mack says.
In fact, one of the primary universal design features – a more spacious, open floor plan – is a primary design trait of almost any home built these days. Wider doors, no-step entries, and low-mounted control switches also tend to go unnoticed.
Appliances may be placed differently, say at different heights, but more often, universal design is not apparent because it is so seamless.
Some characteristics are completely invisible, incorporated into the construction for future adaptation. Grab bars, for example, require blocking in the walls to provide the required support strength. Even if you don’t want the bars just yet, making sure the builder installs the blocking prevents the need to tear up the walls in 20 years.
And the trend to larger homes means more interior spaces naturally accommodate universal design standards. Today’s larger bathrooms can accommodate the 5-foot turning radius required for universal access. A person in a wheelchair could never enter and turn in an old bathroom, with dimensions set shortly after World War II revolving around accommodating the bathtub.
Practitioners stress that universal design benefits apply to all people of all abilities. Perhaps a better way to think of universal design is by one of the other names often applied to it: inclusive design, work-efficient design, multi-generational design, human sustainable design.
Take for instance the zero-step entry, a signature of all universal design homes. Sure, wheelchair users benefit, but the feature also aids parents with strollers, residents who use wheeled luggage and backpacks, anyone moving heavy items in or out on carts and people who simply want to slow the wear and tear on their knee joints.
“Universal design is a user-friendly ergonomic design that applies to all of us,” says Mack, who began her career as an occupational therapist and knows a few things about muscle and bone strain. “We’re living longer and putting more miles on our bodies than previous generations. I look at how we can reduce wear and tear and preserve bodies, joints, and backs.”
Most experts say investing in universal design upgrades is well worth it in virtually any circumstance.