Universal Design: Planning Today for a Comfortable Tomorrow

Traditional Bathroom by Houston Interior Designers & Decorators Carla Aston | Interior Designer

When I was in the market for my last house, I had a worry on my mind: knee surgery. Thanks to a car accident many years ago, I knew I would eventually have to have surgery on my knee to repair the damage. That could potentially mean many weeks of having trouble getting up a flight of stairs, if I could manage it at all.

That dilemma made me think about what would happen when I become older and my body starts to give in to those little aches and pains. What would happen if I lived in a two-story house but could no longer climb the stairs? What would I do if I needed a wheelchair, but the doors were just a little too narrow? That’s when I decided that universal design would be on my list of top design requests when I moved into a new home.

Envision Universal Design Before You Leap

I started out with the basics. I knew I wanted a house that was only one level, thus allowing for more ease of movement if I ever needed mobility assistance. I also wanted a home with spacious kitchens and a large bathroom, rooms that could be transformed into a space to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers.

I was also looking for wide doorways that were easy to get into — for instance, one beautiful house seemed perfect, but the four bedrooms were all at the end of one hallway, with angles that would make it tough to turn a wheelchair around. I checked that house off the list and kept searching.

Finding the perfect house to incorporate universal design elements also includes a landscaped yard that is not too difficult to maintain, a wide driveway and sidewalk, outside steps that can easily be converted to a ramp, and simple entry from the garage or carport to the house.

Starting on Universal Design Right Now

When you choose a house with an eye toward aging in place, you might go into the purchase with the understanding that you will have to one day hire a contractor to make your universal design plans a reality. But there are plenty of small things you can do right now that won’t break your budget and can make life easier when it is time to transition to more universal design elements. Here are just a few:

  1. Contemplate your kitchen. Now is the time to think about using your kitchen when your mobility is different than what it is right now. When you purchase new appliances, look for those that fit into an aging in place design. Opt for faucets that turn on with a wave of your hand, sliding shelves hidden away in the cabinets and even lowered areas, such as a breakfast bar, that can double as a serving or prepping station.
  2. Set up handrails. One of the best exterior features of my last home was the solid, sturdy railing beside the driveway and sidewalk. This railing was used many times when there was snow and ice on the ground and I needed a way to ensure I wouldn’t fall. This same kind of railing could be used elsewhere in the yard to make it easier for those unsteady on their feet to enjoy the outdoors.
  3. Make lighting easy. Those light switches might be easy to handle now, but they might be tough to use in the future. Using switches that require pressure, rather than a flipping motion, can be a great way to make your home more accessible. Change them over yourself right now, and you will get used to them within days.
  4. Adjust your door handles. Turning a common door handle can be an impossible act for someone with arthritis or similar problems. When you replace your door handles, make sure they are the lever type that can be handled with a simple motion, rather than a twisting one.
  5. Look over your bathroom. Your bathroom is one of the places where universal design is most necessary, and also one of the most expensive to remodel. Start with the things you can do in the near future — for instance, a toilet that sits a bit lower is great, and so is a walk-in tub. Since most walk-in tubs take up the same space as a typical tub, they can be installed with little changes in the room layout.

Universal design is one of those things that we don’t like to think about until we need it. By thinking about it now and making the transition early, you can not only prepare your home to be comfortable throughout the rest of your life, you can also boost the eventual resale value. It pays to get moving on it now, at a time when moving isn’t yet difficult to do.

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