What Is Universal Design and How Do You Get It?

Do you have aging relatives or are you thinking of designing a home that you want to live in forever? Then you may have heard the term Universal Design. But it’s hardly just a building and interior design buzzword. It’s a whole way of looking at a home’s design to plan for long-term use and accessibility. It helps people living in the home age in place or manage reduced mobility for other reasons.

The National Association of Home Builders gives the official definition, explaining, “Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

That means everything from taking care of the small details like adding good lighting to larger whole design concepts like keeping everything on one level of the home to reduce mobility issues. Read on to learn more about Universal Design and how it applies to the home design process.

Collect this idea

Universal Design Open Floor Plan

One-story homes with open floor plans keep all areas accessible to all residents. Image: Peter Vincent Architects

Overall floor plans

The first step to making a home acceptable for Universal Design is to make sure the home floor plan itself is maximized for accessibility. As mentioned above, that means single-story living so that stairs do not become a barrier to mobility. Open floor plans can also keep areas more easily accessible.

The doorways will also be designed wider to make room for wheelchairs, as well as moving larger items around the home more easily. Along the same lines, hallways need to be wider for easier wheelchair mobility from room to room. There should be plenty of turning space around alcoves and doors.

In general, Universal Design asks designers to pay more attention to providing as much floor space as possible for ease of wheelchairs in the space. Cramped bedrooms with little space around the bed are a no go.

Entries must also not have steps, and thresholds need to be flush with the floor so wheelchairs can move more easily across entryways and between rooms.

Collect this idea

Universal Design Shower Area

Shower areas with showerheads that detach from the wall and seating areas make for a safer shower experience for those with limited mobility or balance concerns. Image: T.R. Builder

Bathroom spaces

Universal Designers also give the bathroom special attention. Non-slip surfaces in the bathroom are key. Handrails may go by the shower area and toilet for greater access and stability.

Also, designers take ease of use into account when installing showers. For instance, a shower space may just be a tile and drain system. There may be no surrounding steps or tubs of any kind so people can access the space much more easily. Or the space may have a step-in tub with a side that slides up and down.

Collect this idea

Universal Design Kitchen Lighting

Strong lighting can help those with vision problems navigate the space more easily. Image: Designs Anew Houston

Additional elements in Universal Design

Other smaller details can also make the home easier to navigate. For instance, Universal Design pays attention to good, quality lighting. All spaces may be well-lit with recessed lighting, task lighting or ceiling fixtures. This can help people with poor vision move about the space more easily. Similarly, buttons and other controls that can be detected and controlled by touch or auditory output may be added.

Door handles may be a lever design and light switches may be a rocker-type switch. These styles can help people with less hand strength open doors and turn off lights. That’s because they are easier to push on, even with an elbow, than traditional switches and doorknobs.

Even smaller details can make the home more accessible. For instance, Universal Design may turn to a single-hand, closed-fist operation for parts of the home like fire alarm pulls.

Are you considering incorporating Universal Design into your next home?