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Universal Design

Grandfather and grandaughterWhat is Universal Design? It’s a term that has evolved from earlier terms “barrier-free design’ and ‘accessible design’ and is also associated with the term Design For All (DFA). What it refers to is the idea that anything that is designed should be comfortable and practical for anyone. It’s a term that is driven by inclusivity and flexibility, regardless of the age, size, social status, health, or range of abilities of the people for whom the design is intended.

These principles are commonly applied to residential and commercial spaces and to built environments in communities. But, they can be applied to anything created for human interaction or use. So, you can apply these principles when you’re planning on a redefined floor plan, a kitchen refit, or bathroom remodel. But, you may also see the principles of universal design at work in the design of your smartphone, a piece of software, your desktop computer, or in the chair you’re sitting in.

Origins of universal design

The term was coined by architect Ronald L. Mace to be applied to living and work spaces, but also to all built environments; any human-made structure and area designed to be used or occupied by human beings. Mace was involved in early efforts to incorporate accessibility as a factor in building codes. In 1989, he founded the Center For Universal Design in North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. Up until his death in 1998, he was a champion of inclusive design, particularly when it came to accessibility in buildings.

The idea of accessibility is still an important one in the 21st century. But, the concept of universal design moves beyond the approach that accessibility is a specialized area only meant for a certain segment of the population. It acknowledges a number of factors that make it an important concept and set of design approaches for the benefit of everyone in the present and in the future.

Why is universal design important for spaces and communities?

Universal design acknowledges that accessibility is not an exclusive term for those who are currently disabled, elderly, or otherwise physically challenged. It acknowledges that “ability” is a dynamic concept. It takes into account that our range of abilities will change over time, either by nature or by circumstance.

Universal design makes certain that our levels of comfort, practicality, and our dignity will be better served as our range of abilities adapt or are changed over time relative to the spaces where we live and work. It also ensures that even if we aren’t challenged by a change in ability, we can still thrive in a space that employs universal design principles.

Another reason that universal design is an important concept for living and working spaces is that modern, 21st century household occupancy is defined by multi-generations more and more. This means that you, your spouse, your elderly grandmother, your preteen son, and your toddler daughter who’s just learned to walk may be sharing the same space. Universal design is a guiding principle that makes sure that everyone’s common and differing needs are met while living in that space.

Yet another reason that universal design is an important guiding concept is that our populations are aging, and living longer lifespans thanks to modern medicine, better diets, and healthier lifestyles. As a result, the number of elderly citizens is predicted to increase 135%, measured between the years 2000 to 2050.

Further to this, those who will be 85 years of age and over during this span of years and who will need their physical needs addressed the most is a group that is set to increase in size by a whopping 350%. That is a significant number of people who will rely on the design of their homes and communities to account for their new range of ability.

Who benefits from Universal Design?

The benefits of universal design can be extended to the following groups:

1. The physically challenged and elderly

2. Those living with and assisting the physically challenged and elderly

3. Those who will become physically challenged and elderly themselves

In short, everyone benefits. Universal design is an approach that accounts for both present and future states of experience and ability. It acknowledges that accessibility as it relates to design is important to all, although at varying degrees, at different stages, and under unpredictable changes in circumstance in our lives.

What Are The Characteristics of Universal Design?

These are the 7 principles of universal design:

1. Equitable use – Practical to anyone regardless of their range of ability, without focusing on, isolating, or stigmatizing any one group

2. Flexibility of use – Appealing to a wide range of preferences in relation to ability and propensity, accounting for multiple methods of use and changes in physical capacity of users over time

3. Simple, intuitive use – Easy to figure out regardless of experience, skill, language, or physical and mental capacity

4. Perceptible use – Necessary information about how to interact, be comfortable, and be safe is clearly conveyed regardless of physical factors affecting use; legibility, visual contrast, multi-sensory options that provide redundancy

5. Tolerance for error – Hazards are minimized and consequences of unintended actions are accounted for and reduced

6. Low physical effort – Easy to interact with without applying undo exertion, repetitive actions, or having to depart from neutral body positions or states

7. Appropriate size and space – Dimensions and elements are such that reach, line of sight, spatial relationships, manipulation, and mobility are empowered for all ages, ranges of ability, body types, and posture.

Examples of universal design in homes, commercial spaces, community spaces

When thinking of built environments, residences, and properties anywhere in your community, here are a few examples of how universal design can be understood.

  • “Stepless” entryways for easy access
  • Wide hallways, doorways, and entryways to account for extra space and adequate turning radii needed by wheelchairs and walkers
  • Large loop handles on doors and fixtures to reduce margin of error when opening or turning them
  • Impact-resistant surfaces, like rubber floors and cork floors to account for the greater possibility of falls
  • Slip-resistant flooring surfaces; textured porcelain tile, slate tile
  • Easily accessible lighting with intuitive controls
  • Smooth flooring like vinyl, laminate, wood, tile surfaces that allow for wheels, walkers, etc
  • Walk-in, “curbless” showers
  • Front-controlled, front-loading appliances to avoid unnecessary (and sometimes unsafe!) reaching
  • Hand-held fixtures; shower heads, adapted kitchen taps’
  • Mid-range height placement of cabinetry
  • Multi-level countertops and vanities to account for differing height requirements
  • Contrasting colors and color coding that make access points and exits more immediately obvious
  • Railings and grab-bars
  • Ramps with gentle inclines and level landings

Important Milestones in Accessibility Issues, Barrier-Free Design, and Universal Design

  • 1961: American National Institute (ANSI) A117.1 becomes the private sector model for a technical standard for accessible features. It was updated in 2009.
  • 1968 : Architectural barriers act passed
  • 1973: Rehabilitation Act, prohibiting discrimination due to range of ability. Includes section 504 which stipulates systemic accommodation for those with physical limitations in the workplace
  • 1988: Universal design incorporated into the Fair Housing Amendments Act
  • 1990: the Americans with Disabilities Act passed.
  • 1998 – 2002: Amendments in US law made to cover the construction of state and local facilities, play areas for children, and recreational facilities
  • 2004 – present: technical and scoping amendments to ADA standards for accessible design made to address issues of accessibility

Resources and Further Reading

The Center For Universal Design

The Whole Building and Design Guide

Residential Remodeling and Universal Design: Making Homes More Comfortable and Accessible (PDF)

Universal Design Living Laboratory

Universal Design, by Richard Duncan

An Introduction To Universal Design (Dwell.com)

10 Myths About Universal Design (PDF)

The Institute for Human Centered Design

Ron Mace’s last speech


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