Universal Design, or UD, is an architectural practice that allows occupants of all ages and capabilities to live independently and comfortably over a long period of time in the same house.
Thanks to changing demographics, UD is gaining mainstream acceptance. In addition to Baby Boomers looking for well-designed conveniences as they enter their retirement years, an increasing number of multigenerational and blended families (now one-third of all households) seek new homes that accommodate a wide range of ages and capabilities.
Done well, the UD elements of a new home are subtle, almost undetectable … until you need them. Then you'll thank your builder for having the forethought and concern for your needs, whether for a young child, an elderly parent, or someone recovering from a short-term injury or long-term disability.
While you may have to look closely, here are some strategies that incorporate good universal design:
Wider hallways and doors. It doesn't take much square footage and certainly no more construction time or cost to design and build slightly wider hallways and doorways. Not only does that subtle change make a home feel larger and more comfortable, but also easier to navigate.
Cabinet features. Long desired for bigger base cabinets, pull-out (or roll-out) shelves are an increasingly popular option for tall and upper wall cabinets, making their contents more visible and accessible. Regardless of age or physical capabilities, accessories such as lazy susans, door shelves, slotted drawers, and flip-down fronts enhance the storage capacity and accessibility of kitchen cabinets and bath vanities. Soft-close drawers, meanwhile, protect against pinched fingers.
Hard-surface flooring. Yes, it's slightly more expensive than wall-to-wall carpeting, but a combination of hardwood, polished flat tiles, colored concrete, and resilient floor surfaces throughout the house is not only easier to clean and promote healthier indoor air quality, but also easier to traverse. Where needed, area rugs can soften the surfaces.
Lever handles. For doors, sinks and showers, a single-lever handle instead of a knob (or two) is both fashionable and easier to manipulate. A lever is a better option when you have an armful of groceries, are just able to reach the handle, or lack the strength for gripping. For faucets and showers, levers also allow easier temperature control, which mitigates scalding hazards. Also look for "D"-shaped handles or grips on cabinet doors and drawers instead of conventional knobs.
Appliances. Wall ovens and warming drawers, dishwasher and refrigerator drawers (set side-by-side, not stacked), French-door style refrigerators, and microwave ovens with flip-down doors are just a few examples of appliances that are not only popular but also deliver UD benefits of accessibility and safety.
The market for products and systems that enable attractive yet more accessible home design and function is growing. Professional builders and their home-buyers have many options to create a more accessible, beautiful and contemporary home that suits a wider variety of lifestyle needs now and in the future.