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What Is Universal Design?

I have written in the past about making necessary and appropriate modifications to your home that will allow you to remain in your home and age in place.

Spaces designed according to principles of universal design are designed to be usable by everyone, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Universal design helps avoid the need to make too many future modifications since you design space thinking into the future. This kind of design creates spaces that are accessible to people with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, and other characteristics. Universally designed spaces accommodate individual preferences and abilities and can be used regardless of the individual’s body size, posture, or mobility. Universal design principles minimize the need for assistive technology and make living areas more usable by everyone.

Universal design benefits a variety of users, not just those with disabilities. For example, sidewalk curb cuts, designed to make sidewalks and streets accessible to those using wheelchairs, are often used today by kids on skateboards, parents with baby strollers, and delivery staff with rolling carts. Similarly, a door with a motion sensor automatically opens when someone approaches it and is more accessible to everyone, including small children, workers whose arms are full, and people using walkers or wheelchairs.

As Fred Astaire once said, "Old age is like everything else; to make a success of it, you've got to start young." The same principle applies to home design: plan for all stages of life when remodeling or building, even if you are in perfect health now. You never know what life may throw your way, be it be a minor mishap (breaking your leg) or something more serious (being confined to a wheelchair).

To help you get your mindset in the right direction and prepare your home to accommodate people of all abilities, I have compiled some concepts/suggestions that should get you thinking of the years ahead of you in your home.

1) Limit Stairs

Climbing steps and stairs is more difficult as we age. Therefore, when house shopping, do your best to avoid sunken living rooms, split-level and multi-story homes, and raised entrances. You can mitigate some step issues with ramps, but they can be costly and unsightly, so best to avoid the need if possible. Also, make sure you have a direct line of sight from the front door to the street: keep plantings low, remove trees, and get rid of other obstructions. This makes it easier to see visitors (wanted or unwanted) and the goings-on on the street without leaving the house.

2) Automatic lighting systems

Home automation has come a long way from the days of simple garage-door openers and lighting timers. Today, whole-house control systems, like the Caseta from Lutron, let you control groups of lights throughout the house from a single master control or wireless remote. A system such as this, for example, allows you to enter and exit your home safely at night. You can turn lights off after you leave via remote and illuminate the entry and front hallway when returning. Some lighting controls can be hooked up to home security systems and will turn on all the house lights if an alarm is sounded.

3) Consider multiple shower heads

Multiple water sources add flexibility to bathing arrangements. With a rain shower placed in the center, a more traditional shower head at one end, and a handheld shower near a fold-down teak seat with a separate valve to control it from a seated position, people of varying mobility can bathe in the same shower.

4) Install curb-less shower

Any obstruction, even if it's just an inch high, can be difficult for some people, so a roll-in shower with no curb is best. To avoid water getting on the floor, you have three options: build a shower area large enough so you can create a gradual recess to the drain, raise the floor of the rest of the bathroom, or install a drop-in shower with a flange that can be lifted up to serve as a curb when someone is in the shower. To make getting in and out easier, you'll also want to leave plenty of room around the shower, requiring the spacing of cabinets and toilets at an adequate distance.

5) Pass the close-fist test

It's simple: if you can work a faucet with a closed fist, it's suitable for a range of people, including those with severe arthritis. The same applies to doorknobs and cabinet and drawer knobs and pulls. An offset single-lever faucet is ideal because it can be operated with just one hand and doesn't require the user to reach so far behind the sink. You can also opt for motion-sensor faucets that activate when you wave your hand under them, such as Touch20.xt technology by Delta.

6) Bottom storage should be accessible

Most everyday items should be placed between knee and shoulder level. For storage below knee level, use a drawer or pull-out shelf, such as Super Cabinet from Diamond Cabinets. This eliminates the need to bend down or reach for items in the back of the cabinet.

7) Leave enough clearance

For a wheelchair to be able to get through, you should leave at least 42 to 48 inches in kitchen aisles and hallways.


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