Most of us have had this experience: You’re trying to get something off the top shelf, but you’re just not quite tall enough to reach it. As an able-bodied individual, however, you can just step on a stool or a chair to reach that item. For other individuals, the solution may not be so simple.
That’s where universal design comes into play. "I define it as inclusive design," says Abir Mullick, director of the industrial design program at Georgia Tech. "By inclusive, I mean it’s a design that spans across a larger population and includes people who are not well served by traditional design." Although the term has typically been pegged toward design for aging or handicapped individuals, the concept behind it goes much further.
Universal design is based on seven principles, which "go beyond good design principles to be more inclusive design principles," explains Abir, one of the collaborators who helped develop these guidelines. "Enjoyment, or usability, is a fundamental design principle," he states. "Everybody should be able to use it with equal or similar benefits; no one should be disadvantaged."
That’s not to say everything should be designed to purely accommodate certain disadvantaged individuals, either. One of the misconceptions about universal design, Abir notes, is that universal means one solution. But, "if everything was lowered to accommodate wheelchair users, then able-bodied people would be disabled," he explains. Instead, he says, universal design is about having options so that everyone has the opportunity to use an item or area.
In the home, there are many features to consider when thinking about usability. Different rooms elicit different functions, so make sure you keep in mind how each space will be used. As you’re planning, Abir says, make sure you assess how your needs may change over time as well and who’s visiting. The concept of "visitability" is one that many people overlook.
"Most homes are only designed for people visiting who are like yourself," he explains. "As a result, only able-bodied people can visit you. If you have a relative who is disabled, you can only visit them. We should design our homes so that they can be visited by anyone." At a bare minimum, plan on having a bedroom, full bathroom and access to the main congregating areas available to all users.
Once you’ve thought through these concepts, communicate to your builder what you want to see in the design to make sure it can be done and to discuss other options you may want to consider down the road. Remember, not everything has to be done right now; incremental changes are a good option, so make sure to ask how you can make certain adjustments in your home over time.
Here are six major areas to consider when planning your home:
Bathroom. This is one of the most complex areas to design because it requires someone to be independent when using the space, given the private nature of the room, Abir says. "Being able to customize is very important," he notes. Things to think about include how easy it is for users to reach the faucet and/or the soap dish; if users can see the mirror; and how users will gain access to hygiene-related items such as the shower, toilet or general grooming materials.
Kitchen. "Look at the users," Abir repeats. The kitchen is a major social area, so its users are multigenerational. The kitchen should be designed so that any user can be with you as you work to prepare a meal. Adjustable shelving for both small children and those needing to sit is one option. Or, "think about a
multilevel center island so many people can work on it at the same time," he recommends.
Hallways. High-traffic areas used by residents and visitors alike, hallways need to encompass a wide range of functionality. Lighting is key in getting from one place to the next, as is floor surface; if users have a tendency to slip easily, hard materials such as stone and tile may not be appropriate options. Handrails also may be another necessity, depending on who is in your home. Also consider installing walls that can be moved to widen these spaces in the future.
Stairs. If you have a multilevel home, it’s hard to get around without these workhorses. But you can make them easier to use. "Stair treads [the height of each step] of less than 7 inches are less tiring and are good for children, too," Abir notes. Then you can add different types of handrails or a stair climber, or consider alternate ways of climbing the stairs as needed. If necessary, though, he recommends considering provisions for an elevator in the center of the main level.
Patios and Decks. "Give multiple choices within which everyone is able to do something together," Abir recommends. This may include plans for different ramping, different levels of seating and/or different levels of exchanging so everyone can congregate. Also make sure to consider access options for outdoor storage areas, he adds, so that everyone is able to put stuff on certain shelves.
Entrances. "Part of the design discussion should be about how you want to get in and out of the house," Abir says. This may include incorporating a certain type of door, such as dual-opening doors for wider access or sliding doors that are easier to open, or steps that can be turned into a ramp. Many log homes enjoy front-porch features that may not be easy to traverse, so rear entry may be a preferable option.