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Universal Design for the Home

By Wendy A. Jordan

Universal design homes—homes built or remodeled with comfort and convenience in mind—are inviting and safe for all, whether young or old, with or without mobility or ability challenges. They can be wonderfully adaptable places, enabling homeowners to remain in their homes and “age in place” as their needs change. In this excerpt from Universal Design for the Home: Great-Looking, Great-Living Design for All Ages, Abilities, and Circumstances (Quarry Books), author Wendy A. Jordan explains Universal Design and the many opportunities it offers for customizing spaces for the needs of homeowners.

Sometimes an idea comes along that is so good we wonder how we ever did without it. Universal design is one such idea. The concept crystallized out of the desire to make products and places safe and accessible for everyone—the elderly and the very young, the handicapped and those with physical or other challenges, short people, tall people, and everyone in between. Architect Ron Mace, who coined the term universal design and launched the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University in the 1980s, summed up the broad scope when he defined universal design as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

At first much of the focus in universal design was on public places. Some of the universal design options for homes seemed institutional, too “different.” Many were ugly, off-putting. If homeowners had a choice, they steered clear of them.

Now the picture is far different. Public interest in universal design has caught fire, sparking an energetic effort by designers and manufacturers to provide fresh, attractive designs for residential use. They have had great success. Today universal design features blend seamlessly into home designs, drawing little attention to themselves yet making the designs much better. The importance of universal design is clear, and its value in home design is as fundamental as ABC. Well-planned universal design homes are accessible, or barrier-free. They’re beautiful. And they are comfortable for all.

Truly a Design for Everyone
Universal design is a gift to the elderly and to people with physical challenges, such as visual problems, hearing problems, arthritis, or limited mobility, enabling them to enjoy handsome, safe homes that are the envy of the neighbors. Growing numbers of active adults—especially Baby Boomers—also are choosing homes with the universal design advantage. Why? One reason is that they are easy, attractive places to live in. Another is that they are adaptable quarters where the residents can “age in place,” staying in their homes and living independently even if they develop health or mobility issues in the future.

Some homeowners find themselves in the “sandwich generation,” caring for their own children as well as live-in parents or other older relatives. For these families, universal design is ideal. Likewise, it’s a smart way to ready homes that elderly people, handicapped people, or young children may visit.

Many young families gravitate to universal design homes simply because they make bright, open, well planned living environments. The rest of us will bless our universal design residences the next time we are home recovering from an injury.

In the design of a home, these principles influence everything from the floor plan to the landscaping to the door handles. Entering a house, circulating from room to room, functioning in a room, and enjoying the outdoors should be easy, efficient, and barrier free. The features of a space—cabinets and closet rods, appliances and office equipment, sinks, tubs, and showers, seating and work surfaces, doorways and windows—should be safe and accessible for everyone. Flooring and lighting, colors and patterns, should be chosen with an eye toward safety. All this can be done without forfeiting style. Indeed, universal design can add luxury and flair.