Home & Family Finance

Universal Design Makes Home Comfortable for All

Mary Yeater Rathbun

'Beautiful' doesn't seem like a word that should describe bathroom grab bars.

Knowing that no one admires features that could fit an institutional setting, designers and manufacturers have begun creating fixtures, including grab bars, which indeed are beautiful, says Jeannine Clark, a universal design expert with Mannigan Design Inc., Pasadena, Calif. She keeps close tabs on these developments and posts reviews and photos of new products on Facebook.

Dustin Struckmeyer, an interior design instructor at Madison College in Wisconsin, agrees that more aesthetically pleasing fixtures are being developed every day. He points to Kohler Co., Kohler, Wis., as one firm that is "working toward transparency. Their grab bars are decorative. They go with the faucet design and don't look heavy and clunky."

Universal design makes living easy, beautiful

Planning a new house or modifying an existing one so that all people—from the very young to the very old, the able-bodied and those with disabilities—can live in it and visit comfortably is what universal design is all about. It's intended to make living easier now and to help you avoid unnecessary hassles and expensive changes down the road.

If you implement universal design elements without anyone being aware that it's even happening, designers call it transparent.

Dean Johnson, a design/build specialist with Green Construction Services Inc., Lakeland, Fla., tells about a woman who went through one of his Parade of Homes projects. As she was leaving, she got a stricken look on her face, having just realized that she knew the owners, Juliette and Dennis Mason. Dennis has used a wheelchair for many years.

She went back through the house and looked again at everything with that knowledge in mind. With the cabinet doors closed, for example, there was no way to tell that Dennis could pull his wheelchair under the counter to cook or do dishes.

John Borders, an Iraq War veteran who lost a leg, writes, "My bathroom looks like something you would see in a spa and functions like a hospital room. You would never know it was designed for a 'handicapped person.' My wife was thrilled that she could keep her warm, inviting home while still having all my accessibility issues taken care of."

Design has come a long way

Universal design grew out of the disability rights movement. The cuts in sidewalks that make it so easy to pull a suitcase or push a stroller across a street are great examples of the way a universal design element, although initially created to help people with a physical challenge, has made life easier for all.

Universal design is often applied to situations in which people wish to "age in place."

Universal design is not "the unpainted plywood ramp Uncle Charlie has on his house," says Richard Duncan, executive director of the Ronald L. Mace Universal Design Institute in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Even so, says Clark, of Mannigan Design, it was just such a ramp that sparked her interest in universal design. One of her uncles, a fireman, was paralyzed from the waist down in the 1970s. His fellow firemen did a crude retrofit of his home. "There weren't a lot of options," says Clark.

You can stay in your home

Today, universal design is most often applied to situations in which people wish to "age in place."

Struckmeyer says the project he's proudest of is a private residence for a couple. After the wife was diagnosed with a debilitating degenerative disease, they sold their two-story home, where they had raised their children, and bought a condo, which wasn't universally designed. Struckmeyer helped them modify it so the wife could cook and use the kitchen efficiently. Remodeling the master bath lessened the need for a home-health aide. Space for a home office let her work as late as she liked.

Clark says that even when she's designing for the able-bodied, she always looks to the future. In bathroom remodels, she recommends installing backing for grab bars, even if the bars aren't put in at that time. She urges using curbless or low-curb showers.

"Anyone could need it at any time," Struckmeyer adds. People wouldn't need to worry about unpleasant "what-ifs" if they had a universally designed house to begin with, he says.

Clark agrees. "Home developers should be building homes that are universally designed," she says. "Then they would fit everyone. I would rather not have a label, but that's sometime in the future."

Payback more than dollars and cents

Johnson's firm remodeled a bathroom and eliminated a six-inch step at the unit's entryway for a couple in a 55-and-older community. This is an instance when implementing universal design elements clearly increased resale value. It made the property more attractive to the only kind of people who could buy it—people older than 55.

"Most people who incorporate universal design ... say the real payback is being able to live the lifestyle they want."

"Most people who incorporate universal design into their homes say that the real payback is being able to live the lifestyle they want. An increase in resale value is not an immediate certainty," says a brochure from East Metro Seniors Agenda for Independent Living in St. Paul, Minn.

Find universal design expertise

Duncan says few contractors have the skills to successfully implement universal design, but Clark isn't so sure. "If you have someone on the team who knows how to specify [products] and dimensions, then the contractor can learn how to do it," she says.

That's why she and Struckmeyer both say that having a designer, either an interior designer or an architect, on the team is essential. But it shouldn't be just any designer.

Clark took a course through the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), Washington, D.C., and qualified for Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS) certification. NAHB's Web-based directory is an easy way to find CAPS-certified designers, contractors, and architects in your area.

Struckmeyer, who holds a certificate from the National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ), Washington, D.C., suggests looking for someone with that credential and who has experience with universal design work. There's a tool on the NCIDQ website to help you find a designer in your area.

Johnson stresses the need to talk to clients who have hired a universal design firm. "Word-of-mouth advertising is the best way to find a contractor," he says.

Features to consider

Many universal design features are common sense:
  • A well-lit, step-free entrance with a 36-inch-wide door with a lever-style handle; an easy-to-operate lock; a sidelight; and no raised threshold
  • A kitchen; at least one bathroom; one room, at least 12 feet by 12 feet, that can be used as a bedroom; and laundry on the first floor
  • A 34-inch clear opening in all doorways
  • Flat or low thresholds in all doorways
  • Lever-style handles on all doors and faucets
    Talk to clients who have hired a universal design firm.
  • At least a five-foot-diameter clear turning space in every room
  • Large rocker-style light switches placed 36 inches to 40 inches above the floor
  • Electrical outlets and telephone, cable, and modem jacks placed 18 inches to 24 inches above the floor
  • Easy-to-use thermostat and other control panels placed about 48 inches above the floor
  • Kitchen counters or pull-out work boards at various heights
  • Clear counter space to set down dishes next to all appliances and cupboards
  • Adjustable-height kitchen cupboards and pull-out shelves or turntables in corner cabinets
  • Kitchen and laundry appliance controls that are easy to read and reach
  • Adjustable-height handheld showerhead with conveniently placed controls
  • Toilet seat height appropriate for the household
  • At least one full-length or tilting mirror in the bathroom
  • Grab bars near toilet and shower or bath, if walls have been properly reinforced
  • Closet rods reachable from a seated or standing position, or adjustable height rods

Useful resources

  • Award-winning CAPS interior home designer Jeannine Clark of Mannington Design Inc. in Pasadena, Calif., reviews new universal design products and posts them along with photos on her Facebook page.

  • Visit the landing page for all of Kohler's universal design products.

  • The Web-based directory from the National Association of Home Builders, Washington, D.C., makes it easy to find a certified "aging in place" architect, interior designer, or contractor in your area.

  • The website for the National Council for Interior Design Qualification, Washington, D.C., makes it just as easy to find an NCIDQ certificate holder in your area.

  • The East Metro Seniors Agenda for Independent Living, St. Paul, Minn., offers the "Practical Guide to Universal Home Design" that includes an easy-to-use and well-illustrated checklist. You can download and print free copies.