Create a Safer, More Accessible Home with Universal Design Principles
Universal design aims to ensure everyone—regardless of age, size, or ability—can safely and effectively use a space. You might recognize similar ideas from related concepts such as living in place, aging in place, and inclusive and accessible design. “With the term 'aging in place,' people assume you are meaning someone in their 50s and 60s looking toward the latter half of life. With universal design, the intent is to span all generations,” says Dennis Reitz, design manager at Golden Rule Builders, Inc.
The goal of universal design is to create a living space that anticipates a homeowner’s changing needs, as well as the needs of family and guests, and is inclusive of all physical and cognitive abilities. According to Reitz, two core concepts of universal design are to reduce tripping hazards and increase reachability. “You don’t want to have to stoop low or reach too high,” says Reitz. These changes make it easier for people with limitations, whether that’s reduced physical movement while recovering from a surgery or using an assistive mobility device daily, while also increasing usability for children. Here, we'll cover key areas of universal design that work together to embrace multiple generations and abilities under one roof.
1. Consider Doors and Windows
Equip the entry door and other doors in the home with levers instead of traditional doorknobs. “It’s easier than gripping the knobs, and it’s much easier for someone with their hands full to open a door with their elbow,” says Reitz. Doorways should be unobstructed and at least 32-inches wide; 36 inches is even better. Pocket doors or doors with swing-clear hinges allow full use of the doorway.
Casement, awning, and other crank-style windows are easier to open, close, and lock. Double-hung windows can be difficult for some people to lift and latch.
2. Open Up the Layout
At least one bedroom and bathroom should be located on an accessible, ground-floor level. "That way, you can have one-floor living if you need it," says Charlotte Wade, former director of the National Center for Seniors Housing Research.
Opening up a home’s layout is at the heart of universal design. There should be turning space in every room: a 5-foot diameter spot clear from obstructions, where a wheelchair can turn around. While this sounds like a lot of space, it’s not only necessary for some users, but also more comfortable for everyone. Easy-to-move furniture can outfit the area and be removed when needed. “Even if a 35-year-old breaks an ankle, it’s much easier to get around with bigger spaces around the bed,” says Reitz.
Reducing the number of steps and hallways also creates a better flow. “Minimizing hallways makes more efficient use of the space,” says Reitz. When hallways are included in the design, they can be made more accessible by limiting their length and expanding their width from 3-feet (universal-design standard) to at least 3.5- to 4-feet wide.
3. Pay Attention to Outlets and Switch Placement
Light switches, thermostats, and other controls should be no more than 48 inches from the floor. Switches situated between 36 to 48 inches can be reached by most people, standing or seated. When controls are situated above a countertop, they should be installed closer to the countertop, rather than higher above it. Rocker-style light switches are most accessible because they are easiest to turn off and on. Electrical outlets should be at least 15 inches from the floor to keep them within easy reach for everyone.
4. Make Storage Accessible
Storage is a luxury in every home. In universal design, storage should be clearly visible and easy to access; it should not impede on floor space. Opting for built-in storage when possible, especially in tighter rooms like a bathroom, can reduce clutter and free up floor space. Open shelving makes it easier to access what you’re looking for, especially for those with mobility devices.
For closed storage (like kitchen cabinets), install D-shaped drawer and door pulls, which are easiest for most people to use. To reduce bending and reaching for items, use drawers with full-extension glides and outfit cabinets with pull-out storage solutions.
Closets should feature adjustable shelving systems for maximum usability. Like doorways, a closet opening should be at least 32-inches wide. In a walk-in closet, remember to incorporate 5 feet of turnaround space.
5. Ensure Safer Stairways
Stairs can be a major hazard, but if you can’t eliminate them, there are many things you can do to make them safer. Whether it’s just a step down into another room or an entire staircase, make sure the area is well-lit. Use contrasting colors for stair treads and risers, so the change in level is evident. Railings on both sides of stairs allow you to use either arm to maintain stability. Extending handrails continually from top to bottom and being sure to include them on landings provides continuous support. Reitz notes that wider stairs make it easier to go up and down, as well.
6. Update Lighting
“As people age, their eyesight diminishes. The brighter the lighting, the more functional and safe [the space is],” says Reitz. In addition to overall ambient lighting, targeted task lighting where work occurs—such as in the kitchen, bathroom, and reading or hobby areas—should be incorporated. Dimmers are also important to include, as they allow you to adjust the brightness of a light source.
Motion-sensing lights can be used throughout the home, including in bathrooms, living rooms, and on staircases. These automatic fixtures mean you don’t have to find a light switch—or remember to turn the lights off—which is great for kids, forgetful adults, and guests who aren’t familiar with your home. Automatic lights can also help navigate in the dark.
7. Choose Durable Countertops and Lower Work Surfaces
Look for opportunities to include lower workstations in kitchens, baths, and laundry rooms by varying countertop heights. While standard countertops are 36 inches above the ground, including areas at 28 to 30 inches (like a dining table) is better for seated users and children. These workstations, and other key areas like the sink, should have plenty of space for the user to fit under the countertop and nudge right up to the work surface.
Work surfaces should also be easy to maintain and use. “I like to recommend quartz and porcelain countertops that are easy to clean and durable,” says Aimee Inouye of Home Base Designs, LLC, a Certified Kitchen and Bath Designer (CKBD) and Certified Living in Place Professional (CLIPP). Inouye also suggests countertops in neutral colors and simple patterns, which make it easier to see what’s on the surface. You can also consider this when selecting dining tables, desks, and other flat surfaces where tasks occur.
8. Add Smart Home Technology
Technology is rapidly making homes more accessible. “There are more options today than ever before with smart home technology. Everything from your refrigerator, HVAC, lights, window treatments, your security system, doors, and garage doors can be controlled remotely,” says Reitz. Whether it’s from a smartphone app or a special remote, these devices allow many people to avoid physical tasks. “Someone with mobility issues can greatly benefit from being able to turn on lights from their phone, talking to someone at the door through their phone, [or] adjusting the thermostat from their chair,” says Reitz.
9. Opt for Accessible Appliances
Appliances get a lot of use, and they are a major factor when it comes to reachability. Appliances should be at a height that is conducive to those standing or seated. They should be positioned in the room so there is plenty of floor space in front of and to the side, allowing for someone in a wheelchair or with a walker to maneuver and work comfortably.
In the kitchen, this often means transitioning to different configurations, such as including more under-the-counter models, like microwaves or refrigerator drawers. Learn more about where to place appliances with these universal design ideas for kitchens.
Front-loading washers and dryers are another example. When installed on raised platforms, they reduce bending when loading and unloading, and they’re much more accessible for those seated than a top-loading model.
10. Make Flooring Seamless
To prevent slips and make it easier to use a wheelchair or walker, use smooth-surface, slip-resistant flooring. Dense, tightly woven, low-pile carpeting can be used in bedrooms and living spaces. Avoid throw rugs, as they are a major trip hazard.
Transitions between rooms or different flooring types should be minimized; ideally, there should be a smooth, even change between rooms with flush thresholds at doorways. When flooring-level changes cannot be minimized, try getting creative with the flooring application. “One strategy that can be implemented is to change the direction/orientation of flooring if there’s a level change, like a step or two down to a different room,” says Erin L. Serventi, owner of E.L. Designs and Universal Design Certified Professional (UDCP). “If you’re installing hardwood, tile, or luxury vinyl-plank flooring, you can consider changing the direction on each level to help people anticipate level change.”
11. Install Accessible Bathroom Fixtures
Toilets, vanities, tubs, and showers are used every day by everyone in a home. There are many considerations that go into making these fixtures more accessible. "One of the nicest things people can do, is to 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. A curbless shower (also called a zero-threshold shower) removes the basic shower lip that hinders some users and is a trip hazard for others.
Grab bars are another key feature, as they provide critical support in the tub, shower, and toilet areas. These solutions, though practical, should embrace the design of the room. "Universal design does not have to feel medicinal or institutional,” says Wade. Universal design isn’t just about usability, but also about creating a space that looks and feels good for users.
The height of toilets, the amount of space under vanities, and even the right showerheads are also important considerations when designing a bathroom. Get the details on bathroom universal design to create a more conducive bath in your home.
12. Choose Lever-Style Faucets and Shower Controls
Reitz recommends replacing older faucets that have knob-style handles with faucets that have lever handles. Single-lever configuration allows the user to turn water off and on with an open palm or a closed fist. Similarly, a single-lever shower control is easier for most users. “Motion faucets work great and keep you from having to touch or grip the faucet, which keeps the faucet sanitary, too” says Reitz. Tap and voice-activated faucets are also accessible solutions.
For all water controls, hot and cold should be clearly identified with red and blue indicators. And, Reitz reminds, these controls should be easily reachable. Include anti-scald valves in tubs and showers to reduce the possibility of being burned by hot water.
13. Plan for Exterior and Garage Updates
“At least one entrance into the house should not have any steps,” says Reitz, who typically installs a no-step entrance through the garage and a stepless exterior entry, as well if possible. For any raised platform, such as a front porch or a backyard deck, there should be perimeter protection—like a built-in bench, planter, or railings—to prevent someone from not seeing the boundary or moving over the edge.
Prevent garages from becoming too full with designated storage. Squeezing around bikes, lawn mowers, or other vehicles to get in and out of your car becomes difficult to do while pregnant, on crutches, or with a baby in a carrier. Instead, plan for extra space around vehicles to give everyone, including someone using a wheelchair or walker, a safer path in the garage.
14. Enlist a Designer with the Right Credentials
Interested in bringing universal design to your home? Look for designers and builders who have credentials that indicate they have relevant training, such as Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS), Universal Design Certified Professional (UDCP), and Certified Living in Place Professional (CLIPP).