BuildDirect Blog: Life at Home

Universal Design: Accessibility in the 21st Century Home

Features of Universal Design:

  • Non-skid floor surfaces
  • No transition strips
  • Contrast between flooring surface colors to show the transition between rooms
  • Ramps instead of steps
  • Emergency doors and windows that push out very easily
  • Roll-in shower
  • Walk-in bathtub
  • Hand-held shower unit
  • High toilets
  • Grab bars by sink, toilet and in shower/bath
  • Covered hot water pipes underneath sinks
  • Adjustable shelving and counters in the kitchen
  • Dishwasher raised off the floor
  • Range controls at the front
  • Extended levers on faucets
  • Electronic, push or touch type faucets
  • Electrical outlets 15-48” above the floor
  • Good lighting with multiple accesses to switches
  • No sharp edges on furniture
  • Semi-circular or U shaped furniture arrangement for hearing impaired people to see others easily and for wheelchairs to be included
  • Raised numbers and letters and Braille for visually impaired people
  • Audible signals
  • Textured doorknobs and floors to signal danger
  • Stair treads flush with the top of the riser

Many of these are easy to incorporate into a regular home to give freedom to the elderly and disabled without infringing on the lifestyles of younger or more able occupants.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides barrier-free design for people who are physically challenged. Standards were created for state and local government buildings, commercial buildings and public accommodations.

Some examples are corridor widths being wider for wheelchair users and walkers to use comfortably at the same time. Bathrooms accommodate the 5’ turning radius of a wheelchair, and sink placement and height allow easy access. Handrails have specific design specifications and height placements. Ramps replace stairs. We’ve all been in buildings like this.

What is universal design?

ADA is not required for residential design. Its features can be incorporated into a home, but Universal Design is more effective. It goes beyond ADA guidelines to offer safety and accessibility to all people, not just the disabled.

From the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID):

The term “universal design” is often applied in different ways but broadly refers to the concept that ideally all design (products, technologies and the built environment) should serve the broadest range of people, regardless of levels of ability or mobility, age, gender or physical stature without the need for adaptation or specialized design. It is not a design style but rather an orientation to design, focusing on the end-user.

Sometimes universal design is called ‘Aging in Place’. The baby boomer generation is living well into their 80s and 90s, and this has created the need for special home design. This is the oldest generation yet! Remodeling their homes with universal design principles allows the elderly to comfortably grow old without having to move or enter a nursing home.

Universal design enables multi-generational living

Aging in place – just what it says. As people age, they lose stature and strength, their vision and hearing become impaired, and they may have mobility problems. The elderly can maintain their dignity by being comfortable at home for their remaining years.

Universal Design can be used in any home with young or old occupants. It satisfies the needs of people in all stages of life. It does not scream ‘hospital’ or ‘nursing home’. It’s not obvious, which eliminates stigmatization and segregation.

  • It takes into consideration individual preferences, for example, right- and left-handedness.
  • It is flexible, therefore adaptable.
  • It is not complex to understand, so it appeals to a wide range of literacy and language skills.
  • It works with the senses. Information is easy to perceive through pictures, words, sounds and touch.
  • It minimizes hazards with warnings of unintended actions that can have negative consequences.
  • It takes minimal physical effort to operate to reduce fatigue.
  • It allows plenty of space for comfortable personal use, assistive devices or a personal assistant.
Guida REsidence traditional exterior

traditional exterior design by charleston architect Frederick + Frederick Architects

A child can push a large, brightly colored button 30” above ground level to open a door, and someone in a wheelchair or using a walker can do the same thing with little effort. Universal Design can be used by anyone!

Adding universal design features to my new home

I am designing a home for my partner and myself. I am 58, and he is 62. I am considering adding universal features, since we will probably not move from this home.

My fingers are getting arthritic. I’ve been working with my hands all my life, and now I’m paying the price. I’d like to have lever door handles instead of doorknobs. This is one feature of universal design that does not single out any one user and is aesthetically pleasing.

We’ve both had lower back issues, too. I’d like roll-out shelves in the bottom kitchen cabinets. My mother’s kitchen had this feature when my parents were in their 70s and 80s. It reduces bending and protects your back.
All interior doors will be 3’ wide, and it goes without saying that it will be one story. I’ve never liked two story houses, so I wouldn’t build one, but it is a Universal Design standard.


Universal design – simple and not cumbersome

I think Universal Design gives a home a simple, unencumbered feel with its wide open spaces and hallways, and consistent floor levels and surfaces. My next-door neighbors have a grown son, who has been in a wheelchair for over 30 years. Their house is very easy to get around with wide doorways, a big bathroom with a roll-in shower, a wide hallway to the kitchen and a spacious living room with a simple furniture arrangement. You wouldn’t know there is a disabled person in the house! It suited everyone’s needs.

My partner and I don’t know what’s in store for our health in the future, but we are going to plan for it with universal design.

Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.


  1. Great Article Nan! Universal Design properly implemented provides seamless accessibility without compromising style elements. The linear drain in the shower is a prime example of merging aesthetics and function.

  2. As a former residential builder for over 25 years, it is a sad commentary to see new homes being built right in my own neighborhood that are non-ADA compliant. There is not one bedroom or one bathroom that is accessible. I blame the builder and the architect for being ignorant to the fact that with a little attention to detail, all bedrooms can have a 32″ entry door and at least one bath should have a 32″ door or 30″ clearance. Where is the architectural community to provide a simple checklist to the designers of floorplans to make sure that the floorplan incorporates basic universal design concepts.

    Another big failure is the electrical plan and the lack of oversight when the electrical rough in occurs. The actual electricians tend to put switch locations without even thinking about the consequences and the typical Superintendant that is supposed to be paying attention to this detail doesn’t even know what to look for. The simple use of offset hinges, costing about $ 25 for three, can turn a non-compliant door into an accessible entrance. I know there are municipalities that have modified their building codes to require minimum ADA compliance for at least one bedroom and bath. Well, I guess the laziness of the disciplines is what keeps me busy.

  3. Thanks for your input, Eric! Your website is great. You’re right. It wouldn’t take much to add a few small things to make a UD home out of conventional. I think maybe since it’s not required for residential, designers don’t bother. Just a thought. We’re all going to get old some day, and the boomer generation is the biggest and oldest. UD should be in the forefront, no doubt. Thanks again!

    • Nan,
      Thank you for a great article. One source of funding that I became aware of last year is the USDA Rural Development offices thru out the country. You can google it and hit their website and click on single family homes and get all of the eligibility requirements for seniors. They have grants up to $ 7500 and 1% loans from $ 7501 up to $ 20,000 payable over a 20 year period. The kicker is that their address must be considered “rural”. There is a link where you put in an address and they come back with an answer. I have done a couple of projects for them and they are motivated to get money out the door, contrary to our infamous VA.

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