Universal Design: how it can work for all of us.

It has taken many years, but housing designers have found a way to create barrier-free homes, and make then attractive. It’s called “Universal Design.” Homes that have universal design features look like other homes, but they can sometimes be better than other homes because they are much easier to use and to live in. Universal design is getting popular. They look appealing. People with disabilities don’t feel like they are settling for a house that was retro-fitted with things that are necessary for them. The homes were designed specifically to meet their needs, but still keeping in mind the aesthetics that people want. People who don’t have disabilities think that universal homes look just as a “regular” home does.

But Universal Design is not just for the disabled! The Baby Boomers are planning for their future: retirement, smaller homes, etc. Universal Design is for them too! While it may not be a concern now, that house that a 50-something couple just bought will be their retirement home, their home to grow older in, their home to be in for the rest of their lives. They are active and mobile now, but who knows fifteen years from now? A one-story, easy-to-use home with amenities like a first floor laundry and wider hallways are nice now, but could be a necessity down the road.

Features for Today

What makes a home “universal“? It’s simple. Here are some of the more common universal design features:

* No-step entry. No one needs to use stairs to get into a universal home or into the home’s main rooms.
* One-story living (ranch homes or two-story with first floor master suite). Places to eat, use the bathroom and sleep are all located on one level, which is barrier-free.
* Wide doorways. Doorways that are 32-36 inches wide let wheelchairs pass through. They also make it easy to move big things in and out of the house.
* Wide hallways. Hallways should be 36-42 inches wide. That way, everyone and everything moves more easily from room to room.
* Extra floor space, open spaces. Everyone feel less cramped. And people in wheelchairs have more space to turn. Repositioning load-bearing walls to create open areas.

Features for Comfort

Some universal design features just make good sense. Once you bring them into your home, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them. For example:

* Floors and bathtubs with non-slip surfaces help everyone stay on their feet. They’re not just for people who are frail. The same goes for handrails on steps and grab bars in bathrooms.
* Thresholds that are flush with the floor make it easy for a wheelchair to get through a doorway. They also keep others from tripping.
* Good lighting helps people with poor vision. And it helps everyone else see better, too.
* Lever door handles and rocker light switches are great for people with poor hand strength. But others like them too. Try using these devices when your arms are full of packages. You’ll never go back to knobs or standard switches.

Features for Later

Universal design gives you great home feature you can enjoy now. It also helps you plan for the future. Take closets for example: when you build a closet, add some adjustable brackets. Later on, you can use those brackets to move clothing rods and shelves to a better height. This tiny investment helps a closet grow along with a child and it also means you can use the closet even if you start using a wheelchair. This kind of planning can help you make sure every part of your home will adapt to your changing needs.

(Excerpts taken from: http://www.aarp.org/families/home_design/universaldesign/a2004-03-23-whatis_univdesign.html)

Being married to a home builder, we are always looking at the “next” home. Our next home, ideally, will be built using many UD features. This is a must for us as I have MS. But that is not the only reason. We want to utilize UD to make living that much easier: A sprawling ranch. Wider doorways and stairs. No barrier shower. An area for a small elevator if it is to be a 2-story home. Wider areas between the sink and island in the kitchen. All of these things, plus many more make the home more “livable”, and not just for someone with a disability.

Fixing Hard-to-Use Homes

You may have your own ideas about universal design features that could help you. Take a good look around your home. Make a list of the things that bug you. Tired of bending to plug in the iron? Sick of stretching to reach your favorite platter? Can’t stand carrying laundry to the basement? Talk to some contractors to see if there are some UD options to help you.

For someone like me, I can definitely see the need for Universal Design. I have MS. I am still mobile, I still get around without the use of a wheelchair or even a cane. But I can see down the road how some of the features of UD may be beneficial for me. Wider doorways and staircases are necessary for a wheelchair, but they are also nice to have when carrying a laundry basket. So some of the features that are necessities for some are also a luxury for others.

From the MS Society Website:

“Universal Design enables everybody-not just people with disabilities-to navigate, manipulate, and appreciate our world. Non-slip flooring: It’s safer for all sorts of feet. Curb cuts make things easier whether you’re pushing a stroller or a wheelchair. Think of a grab bar in the shower. It’s seen by many as a “disabled” thing, but who wouldn’t want one when their eyes are full of shampoo?

Universal Design makes products, communications, and the built environment not only aesthetically pleasing but also more usable by more people-at little or no extra cost. There’s just one little problem: Universal Design is not exactly universal. Not yet. If it were, many special accommodations for people with disabilities would disappear. They wouldn’t be needed.

Thankfully, product and space designers, heeding the needs of people with disabilities as well as a population with an increasing number of older people, are slowly beginning to solve problems using the principles of Universal Design. New technologies augment their efforts. Examples slowly entering the marketplace include adjustable kitchen sinks and vehicles with more power assistance.” http://www.nationalmssociety.org/site/PageServer?pagename=HOM_LIB_imsoct04_universaldesign

Other Resources

Meet a Universal Design Architect
Because of a genetic disorder, Architect Karen L. Braitmayer uses a wheelchair. Her disability has shaped her career.

BabyBoomers and Universal Design
This article, published by Realty Times, suggests that demand from Baby Boomers is making Universal Design more popular.

Books

Find this book online at www.barnesandnoble.com:

The Accessible Home: Updating Your Home for Changing PhysicalNeeds, Bryan Trandem (Editor), Creative PublishingInternational, Inc., January 2003.

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