Will your home age gracefully? Will you be able to live there whether or not YOU age gracefully? Universal Design for the home proactively cures literal obstacles to promote access and livability for as many stages of life as possible.
If you were in a wheelchair, could you pivot in the hallway of your home? Easily enter the bathroom or take a shower? Escape a fire?
Architects and builders address these problems by following Universal Design (developed by North Carolina State University School of Design). Our cause is making home life easier by informing clients about these livability options while work is being planned, recommending a longterm view about accessibility and ease even if the owner plans to move (i.e. attractive features for re-sale).
Universal Design (UD), as the name implies, is a common sense method of making house features comfortable and convenient for as many different people at as many life stages as possible, whether a child, older adult "aging in place" or someone with a physical, even mental, challenge. UD makes homes hassle-free from ages "5 to 95". Who doesn't prefer easier at any age?
Former building code and design standards assumed occupants being an "average person", based on a definition of typical health, height, etc. UD employs simple, proven concepts to make any home more comfortable for a wider range of people including families with young children, people who use walkers/wheelchairs, those taller or shorter than average or those who desire to simplify housekeeping (who doesn't?).
UD is comprehensive yet flexible. The approach begins with three primary trouble spots in the typical home, the entrance, bathrooms and kitchen. UD does not exclude ANY area of the home, including landscaping, and fundamental to planning correctly is realizing that every household's circumstances are unique.
UD uses check-lists and guidelines but those in the building trade must simply LISTEN to the residents and be prepared to customize based on the person's needs. Let me assure this isn't complicated but it does require thought. You begin by examining the most likely areas of inconvenient, everyday barriers and that's typically the entry/exit, restrooms and kitchen. Obviously you don't ignore anything.
Let's look at an entrance for some basic examples or "essentials". Entryway doors should be at least 36 inches wide to allow for a 34-inch clear opening when the door is open at a right angle. Lever-style door handles (instead of round knobs), good lighting (including natural light) and ample landing space inside and outside (5 feet by 5 feet for the latter), a covered overhead (e.g. roof, canopy or awning to protect from rain, ice and snow). Avoid split-level entry or raised thresholds, imagine accessibility by baby stroller, pulling luggage or wheelchair/walker.
Optional features worth considering to make life easier: lighted doorbell, intercom, push-button power door or handy shelf just outside door to set down a handful of items. Each room and area of the property has must-haves and nice-to-haves depending on the unique circumstances of the residents. Timers are a perfect example of what could be optional to one household yet critical to another. Someone with memory deficiencies from a traumatic brain injury (e.g. wounded war veteran, accident victim) might absolutely require timers to prevent accidents with systems around the home.
"Oh this sounds expensive." Let me rebut in two sentences, it can be (e.g. high tech security cameras) but doesn't have to be, many items can be purchased at the hardware store (e.g. door hinge extensions). And it's less expensive building new or if you're improving another aspect of the home at the same time. For instance, UD doesn't add cost to simply reposition a receptacle if you haven't installed the sheet rock.
UD is involved but not rocket science and I'll blog later about specific scenarios. But I'd like for you to contemplate the inside and outside of your home and how you'd contend with different scenarios (e.g. aging, accident/illness, in-law/grand parent moving in, moving furniture or new baby) and I'll end with:
The Principles of Universal Design:
- Equitable Use
- Simple and Intuitive
- Perceptible Information
- Tolerance for Error
- Low Physical Effort
- Size and Space for Approach and Use
None of us will beat aging ("none of us will get out of here alive"). And the unfortunate truth, accurately pointed out by the disabled and the organizations which assist them, "Our membership continually grows", an ironic consequence of the efficacy of modern medicine because we survive everything.
As we modernize our aging residential housing stock, "going green" and improving energy efficiency hogs the headlines but, no less important and maybe more so, housing professionals must understand and practice Universal Design to ensure homes don't become obstacle courses with our passing years.