Universal Home Design: What Is The Process?

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Whether by choice, necessity or the desire to age in your current home, you may benefit from incorporating universal design. Universal design involves constructing an environment to be usable by all people — regardless of age, physical ability or stature — without the need for modification or specialized design.

Should you decide to incorporate this concept into your living space, be sure to follow the Center for Universal Design’s seven principles to guide and evaluate your design process and products:

  1. Equitable to all people
  2. Flexible and accommodating
  3. Simple and intuitive
  4. Communicates necessary information
  5. Tolerates error for minimal hazard
  6. Requires low physical effort
  7. Size and space meet all needs of all people

Universal design drivers

When embarking on a universal design project, first identify the factors driving your desire to do so. What are your current needs? How might they change? What elements must be altered to support your needs over the long term? There are a multitude of universal design drivers, and there are a number of options available to address each one. Some examples include:

Problems Lifting

  • Install easy-to-turn lever faucets.
  • Buy u-shaped drawer handles for cabinets and drawers.
  • Have a professional install grab bars where appropriate in the bathroom.

Issues Moving

  • Install a bench in the shower or tub for easier movement in and out.
  • Put wedges at the door to avoid tripping over thresholds.
  • Place handrails on stairs.

Limited Eyesight

  • Make sure your appliances have large print instructions.
  • Put strong lighting over walkways and stairs.
  • Consult a local electrician to install additional lighting in the kitchen and bathroom to avoid accidents.

Where to start

If you’re uncertain about where to start with your universal design project, approach it in one of two ways:

  1. Consult the Center for Universal Design at the University of North Carolina’s reference guide, which offers recommendations for universal design changes and an explanation of their benefits.
  2. Hire a disability services professional. Explain your objectives and request a walk-through of your home to see what an expert would recommend changing to achieve them.

Small projects

While fully incorporating universal design into your home is a significant undertaking, there are smaller projects you can tackle to get started. Consider installing the following in increments over time:

  • Grab bars
  • Ramps over stairs, steps and thresholds
  • Taller toilets
  • Barrier-free entries
  • Easy-to-use light switches and door hardware
  • Cabinets with pull-out shelves
  • Correct light and task lighting
  • Braille signs (for limited vision)

Some of these installations are uniquely specialized, while others are generally beneficial. Grab bars, additional lighting and easy-to-use cabinets are a good idea whether you’re planning to sell your home, occupy it for a few years, or grow old in it, for example. These aspects of universal design are simple and affordable — and any investment in them will pay back in years to come, whether it be in resale value or simply by making your day-to-day life easier.

Universal design & Amy Van Dyken-Rouen

Universal design was in the news recently when Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, who suffered a tragic ATV accident, saw her home transformed to adapt to her needs in a wheelchair. You can see the full episode of George to the Rescue here.

Some of the universal design changes made to Amy’s home included:

  • Lower countertops
  • Drop-down shelving
  • Walk-in shower
  • Pull-down closet racks

When asked about universal design and the best way to approach it, Travis Neff of Neff Enterprises, a screened and approved contractor from HomeAdvisor who oversaw the project, said, “I think the best recommendation would be to hire a competent contractor.” While homeowners can handle some of the smaller renovations on their own, anyone undertaking a major universal design project should seek the assistance and experience of a professional.

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Andrea Davis

Andrea Davis is based in Denver, Colorado as an editor for HomeAdvisor. As a deeply engrossed fan of the written word in its many forms, she’s always looking to tell home improvement stories in a new light that both engages and entertains. She's a frequent and very welcome content contributor here on the BuildDirect Blog.