Universal Design –

What is Universal Design?


Minneapolis Remodeling Contractor
David Vinje – NARI Certified Remodeler CR, NHBA Certified Aging in Place Specialist CAPS, EPA Certified Renovator, Top 40 under 40 award by Professional Remodeler Magazine

Universal design is a developing approach to creating livable, marketable environments for everyone as common practice in design. It is inclusionary design that applies to spaces, features, and products to maximize the number of people who can function independently in a particular environment. Universal design considers human needs and abilities throughout the lifespan, It attempts to meet the needs of people of all ages, sizes, and abilities. This concept includes the older, more narrowly focused concepts of barrier free and accessible design, but eliminates the stigma and special appearance to ensure marketability. It is often called life-span design, inclusive design, or Pans-generational design.

Universal designs are not special. Incorporating universal features into a home during a typical remodeling or rehabilitation project will not change the appearance of the home nor necessarily increase the project cost. Useful products are generally available through standard distribution channels. As the market increases, universal elements will be more prominently displayed in home improvement stores. Many quality products on the market today accomplish universal design goals. For example, quality slider or double-hung windows that open and close easily make installation of specially designed windows for people with severely limited strength unnecessary.

Who Benefits From a Home With These Features?

Most residents. Universal designs serve the entire population regardless of age, stature, size, or physical ability. Traditional homes designed for average families may limit the independence or functionality of some residents, Kitchen counters are too low for very tall individuals and too high for short people. Light switches are too high for both a 3-year-old and an older person with limited reach. Rotating door handles and faucets cannot be turned by people with arthritic hands. Not only do wheelchairs not fit through most interior doorways, but furniture is also harder to move around. Thresholds can be an impediment to people using crutches, canes, or walkers, as well as to tiny and old shuffling feet. Bathtubs and showers are slippery and typically provide nothing to grasp. Homes that fit during young and middle years are often inappropriate for older years.

It makes sense to consider now how the home will fit the needs of older residents. Surveys show most of us want to grow old at home. Today, over 12 percent of the U.S. population is over 65. Census projections estimate in 30 years, more than 20 percent of us will be over 65. And in 40 years, the over-85 population is expected to triple. The market for homes with universal features that allow older people to remain at home and independent will likely increase. Homeowners should consider including universal features during home remodeling projects both to meet the new market and to ensure their own comfort in later years. Many universal concepts are modifications of designs originally conceived to help people with physical limitations live more independently. Currently, 49 million people have a physical disability. Most have impaired mobility or dexterity, including 37 million people with arthritis (21 million under age 65). Many others will experience at least temporary disabilities and could also benefit from these features.

Handicp accessible remodeling
Walk in tub

Universal Design, Adaptable Design, and Accessible Design in Homes

Universal features, products, and designs create homes that are accessible for more people than typical homes. Furthermore, universally designed homes can be easily adapted to meet special needs. A fully accessible home of the past typically included appliances, specialized features, and accommodations that made the home look different and cost more than usual. Homes with universal features look no different than neighboring homes and are often no more expensive. Universal design does not produce a special home environment, but rather provides spaces and features that are usable by more people and can be adjusted to meet individual needs.


Universal Design in Residential Remodeling

Comfort Hight Toilet
Comfort Height Toilet

There can be two reasons to include universal design features in a home. One is to meet an immediate need; the other is to plan ahead to make the home better fit household needs now and for the future as part of normal home up-grade or remodeling projects.

Home modifications required to meet an immediate need are typically undertaken out of desperation-to accommodate an elderly relative, a special physical need, or a temporary disability. Planning is done quickly and without adequate research. Budget limitations allow for few trade-offs. Work is accomplished in haste, without time for cost efficiencies.

Planning for aging and potential market edge, comes from far-sighted homeowners who anticipate their own, their family’s, and guests’ possible future physical limitations and changing needs. These individuals incorporate select universal products and designs as they up-date or remodel their homes. The costs of their remodeling projects are not necessarily higher as they create marketable, attractive, comfortable homes for a lifetime.

Low-Cost, Easily Installed Universal Features:

Some methods to make a home more functional for everyone should be considered in home remodeling projects. The cost and difficulty involved in these procedures is often small when compared to their benefits. Modifications of this type include:

  • -use of lever handle door hardware and faucets;
  • -installation of large rocker-style light switches;
  • -use of extra lighting where necessary;
  • -installation of hand-held flexible shower fixtures;
  • -installation of new electrical outlets and telephone jacks (when needed) no lower than 15 inches above the floor surface and of new light switches between 36 inches and 48 inches above the floor surface; and,. use of adjustable hanging closet rod and shelf systems.