Universal Design

Universal DesignRonald L. Mace (1941-1998) was a nationally recognized architect, product designer and educator. He coined the term “universal design” to describe the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability or status in life.

Based on that definition, universal design has become a broad concept that includes barrier-free design, accessibility and appearance. When talking about universal design or accessibility in architecture, people tend to immediately think of a person in a wheelchair though disabilities also include hearing loss, impaired vision, arthritis and other issues. As life expectancy rises we’re living with more and more of those other issues: knee pain, back pain, pulmonary issues, loss of vision, loss of balance, loss of dexterity, etc.

We think the most important concept of universal design is often missed – it benefits everyone regardless of your age, ability or status in life. The door knobs in the image are a great example. Lever handles are easier for everyone to operate. Door knobs require an empty hand, a firm grip and the ability to turn your wrist and forearm. You could operate a lever handle without using your hands. That’s helpful whether you’re able-bodied and carrying groceries or you’re no longer able to easily operate a door knob.

The practical application of universal design can be enjoyed by everyone: no-step entrances, wider interior passages, fixtures that are easy to operate, appropriate lighting, etc. When paired with some of the standards from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), this design strategy makes our homes more comfortable, more valuable and safer than houses only designed to the building code – a minimum standard.

Aging in Place
Incorporating universal design into your new construction or renovation project addresses the challenge of aging in place – most older Americans want to enjoy independent living in their own homes as long as possible though very few people plan to do so. We should all have a plan for aging in place even if it’s just to help us make better decisions about what properties we purchase or rent. Having a plan will also help you make better decisions about projects even though you may not currently have a need. For example, putting supports for grab bars in the walls of your bathroom renovation now will allow you to add the grab bars later without additional work.

Rehabilitation and Stability
As we lead longer, active lives more people are injured in ways that change their day-to-day life. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wheelchair bound; it could just be a sports injury that makes it difficult to navigate stairs. Others change their day-to-day routines in response to illnesses. Working with your architect to make some modifications to your home can significantly improve your comfort, health and safety. In same cases, the expense is covered by insurance or a legal settlement in the case of an accident. In any event, we’d like your home to respond to your current and future needs so your trips to and bills from the hospital and assisted living facilities are greatly reduced.

RL Mace founded the Center for Universal Design at NC State University. You can find articles and other information on their website.

The Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD) is an international non-profit organization based in Boston.

The US Department of Justice has published its website for the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) to collect the significant number of rules, regulations and government resources related to the ADA. Many states publish and enforce ADA standards for commercial buildings. We can also use them in residential projects.

In Conclusion
You can pick and choose what universal design strategies are best for you though you have to ask for them – they’re typically not required by building codes. It’s always best to try and apply universal design through passive strategies – position the building to reduce stairs rather than adding an expensive lift that has operating and maintenance costs. It’s also helpful to start your discussion about universal design early in your project since the structure and some of the building systems of your home may need to be modified.

You’ll probably face some tough decisions about universal design when you have to prioritize the cost of those strategies with other project expenses like more square footage and more expensive finishes. We’d rather you have a smaller space that responds to your needs than a larger space that doesn’t – no matter how good it looks. An investment in universal design is one that you can enjoy every day you’re home.