25 Things to Know About Universal Design

Smart planning will make your home welcoming and accessible to all.


1. Make sure the main entrance and at least one other exterior passage are accessible to everyone. They should have no steps and thresholds that are no more than 1/2 inch high.

2. Entering with packages and other items can be difficult, so include a covered entry and provide a shelf or bench both inside and outside the door. Provide a clear, level space on both sides of the door.

3. A motion detector can ensure that the entry is lighted when you arrive home. For convenience and peace of mind, install a home-automation system, including an intercom system that is linked to the front entry.

4. Equip the entry door and other doors with easy-to-use levers instead of knobs. Electronic locksets can replace keys for entry doors.

5. Thinking of adding a powder room on the first floor? Consider a full bath instead. If all bedrooms are upstairs, a full bath on the main level allows you to convert a den or other main-level space to a bedroom later. "That way, you can have one-floor living if you need it," says Charlotte Wade, director of the National Center for Seniors Housing Project.

6. Unobstructed door openings should be at least 32 inches wide. Pocket doors or doors with swing-clear hinges allow full use of the doorway. A 36-inch-wide door is even better. Hallways also should be at least 36 inches wide. "Wider is always better," Wade says.

7. Make it easy on the eyes. Visual acuity often declines with age, so plan accordingly. Include task lighting in the kitchen, bathroom, and reading or hobby areas. Provide plenty of light for staircases. Use contrasting colors for stair treads, countertops, and other surfaces.

8. Open up the floor plan. Provide easy circulation among rooms, and minimize or eliminate stairs between rooms. Built-in storage, such as bookshelves and entertainment centers, reduces clutter and frees up floor space. "A lot of these features just make the home feel more spacious and airy," Wade says. "Universal design does not have to have a medicinal or institutional feel."

9. Look for contractors and designers who have earned the Certified Aging in Place Specialist, or CAPS, designation from the National Center for Seniors Housing Project.

10. To prevent slips and make it easier to use a wheelchair or walker, use smooth-surface, slip-resistant flooring or low-pile carpeting. Minimize use of throw rugs.

11. Avoid a basement laundry. Locate it near the master bedroom. For easy use by all, equip it with a raised platform featuring a front-loading washer and dryer with front controls.

12. Casement, awning, and other crank-style windows are easier to open and close than double-hung windows.

13. Allow a 5-foot-diameter turnaround space in each room, including the bathroom. While this sounds like a lot of space, it doesn't have to disrupt your floor plan. "There are a lot of ways you can do it," Wade says. "You can get some of that turn space by having the space under the sink open. If you have an open shower area, that will add turn space."

14. Light switches, thermostats, and other controls should be no more than 48 inches from the floor. Electrical outlets should be at least 15 inches from the floor to keep them within easy reach for everyone.

15. Staircases can be a major hazard. To make them safer, extend handrails at the top and bottom landings. A wide, straight staircase with large landings at the top and bottom makes it easier to add a chair lift.

Universal design features can make work in the kitchen more convenient for everyone. Careful choices of appliances, sinks, and other items can make a big difference without having a major impact on your budget. These are all standard products that are out there in the marketplace. It's just a matter of asking your contractor or home center, says Mark Dinges, AIA, a Des Moines architect specializing in universal design.

16. A kitchen island can be an ideal seated workstation, but determine whether including an island will leave enough floor space for wheelchair mobility. If you do include an island, make the work surface easily accessible from all sides.

17. Instead of a range, equip the kitchen with a wall oven and a front-control cooktop, each with adjoining recessed space to allow access from a seated position. Also allow recessed space beneath the kitchen sink. "Look for a sink that is 3 or 4 inches deep rather than the standard 7-inch depth, with the drain hole offset at the back instead of the center; that provides knee clearance," Dinges says.

18. Loop handles or touch latches instead of knobs make it easier to open cabinet doors. To reduce bending and reaching for items, use drawers with full-extension glides and include lazy Susans in cabinets.

19. For greater flexibility in the kitchen, include pullout work surfaces, rolling carts, and varied counter heights. It's a good idea to pick countertops at different heights to provide areas to work while sitting, Wade says. Lower countertops are easier for children to use, too. "Most of the things for people with limited mobility are also good for children," Wade says.

20. Go vertical. A side-by-side refrigerator allows multilevel access to the freezer section. The same principle applies to pantry space.

21. Install the microwave oven at counter level or below, and raise the dishwasher 6 to 16 inches above the floor for easier access for all family members. "Placing the microwave close to the refrigerator makes it easier to transfer items," Dinges says.

With its wet, slippery, and hard surfaces, the bathroom can be the most dangerous place in the home. That makes it a prime spot to add universal-design features. Consider these changes, not just for accessibility, but also for safety.

22. Install backing behind walls for grab bars, especially in the tub/shower and toilet areas. "If you're remodeling the bathroom and you're tearing out tiles around the tub, then it's a logical time to put in reinforcement for grab bars," Wade says.

23. Install faucets with single-handle controls or infrared sensors. Include antiscald valves in tubs and showers.

24. Buy a special toilet or retrofit an existing toilet to raise the seat 17 inches from the floor.

25. Include a large roll-in shower with a seat. "One of the nicest things people can do is separate the tub and shower or replace the tub and shower combination with just a shower," says Mary Jo Peterson, a universal-design specialist who operates a Brookfield, Connecticut, design firm.

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