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Universal design is more than one-level living

When done correctly, universal design for the mobility-challenged can be invisible and effective
by Sharon Arkoff
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Whether you are designing your home for your retirement years, you have a family member in a wheelchair or you simply don’t like stairs, there’s a log or timber frame home design just for you.

They’re often called “universal” designs and they’re specifically for multi-generational families or those with mobility challenges. And, they’re doing it with elegance and attention to today’s home trends.

“Universal design isn’t just functionality; it’s functionality paired with the rest of the house – architecture, interior design, and lifestyle. No one should really notice that it’s there,” says Dick Duncan, Director of Universal Design Training at the Center for Universal Design in North Carolina. “It’s not about single-story living. You can have a multi-story house. It’s more about, if you want a step-down living room, also plan space for one side of the living room to include a ramp.”

While all rooms in your home should be accessible, important spaces to consider for universal design particularly include the bathrooms, the kitchen and the entryway.

“The biggest single challenge for people with mobility issues is getting in the front door. Once you’re in, everything else is pretty easy,” assures Duncan.

Entrance: Accordingly, plan your home with at least one entrance that doesn’t require climbing steps, or take advantage of attractive natural materials such as stonework to craft an inviting ramp that curves from ground to entryway.

If your home is on a hillside building site with a lower-level entryway or garage, take advantage of increasingly affordable residential elevators – to be installed during construction or to be framed in for installation a few years down the road. They’re a huge convenience whether you’re welcoming friends and family who can’t do stairs or whether you hauling luggage, furniture or supplies from a lower-level garage up to a main-floor kitchen or bedroom.

Hallways: Keep doorways and hallways a shade wider than standard, to accommodate scooters or a wheelchair, and for better traffic flow and an airier feeling in your home.

Kitchen: In the kitchen, plan traffic routes so they’re wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair or rocker, even if the dishwasher is open or you need to get food in an out of an over or the refrigerator.

Instead of installing cabinets that demand that you crawl into their depths, go with storage that reaches out to you: your back will thank you for full-extension door glides, base cabinets with pull-out shelves, lazy susans, and pantries with adjustable-height shelves.

Bathrooms: When it comes to the bathrooms, accept that not every bath in your home will meet everyone’s needs; you may not have the space to make your kids’ bath big enough to accommodate the 5-foot turning radius required by a wheelchair.

Instead, focus on making sure that at least one bath in your home is designed with a curbless or wheel-in shower that features a safe seating area with grab bars, and that’s designed with enough space on one side of the toilet to get from a chair to the toilet, or for a caregiver to provide assistance.

Finishing touches: Small touches go a long way with universal design, so remember details like easy-access light switches and door handles.

“At times, all of us find ourselves to be functionally disabled. You’re coming in with an armful of groceries, and a lever handle makes it easier to open the door than would a twist-type handle,” points out Duncan. “Rocker panel switches for lights are the ‘arms full’ switch or the ‘Mom’s convenience’ switch, as well as being more comfortable for people with arthritis and easier to see for people with impaired vision.”

And after all, it’s comfort that makes a log home worth having, and worth staying in longer thanks to universal design.

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