View From The Top, vol9

By Nat Hodgson
Executive Director
Southern Nevada Home Builders Association

 

Universal Design in Housing

An increasing number of new homes now include features and products that are part of the “universal design” movement launched in the late 1990s.

The term refers to products and environments that are designs so they are usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. These products and features are especially appealing to home buyers with disabilities, and now, the aging Baby Boom generation, many of whom have entered the “senior citizen” years of their life.

But since the concept gained traction in the early 2000s, it turns out that universal design appeals to more people than just the disabled and the aging.

Universal design takes into account the full range of human diversity, including physical, perceptual and cognitive abilities, as well as different body sizes and shapes. By designing for this diversity, we can create things that are more functional and more user-friendly for everyone. For instance, curb cuts at sidewalks were initially designed for people who use wheelchairs, but they are now also used by pedestrians with strollers or rolling luggage. Curb cuts have added functionality to sidewalks that we can all benefit from.

Here are some of the more common universal design features that are showing up in new-home construction because of the growing interest:

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. Places to eat, use the bathroom and sleep are 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 large objects, such as furniture, 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. Everyone feel less cramped. People in wheelchairs have more space to turn. Some universal design features just make good sense.

 

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.

The basic principles of universal design are the minimization of physical obstacles inside and outside the home, the addition of spaces for socializing, and a reduction in the amount of work related to homeownership.

For example, when it comes to the exterior of the home, eliminate as many stairs to the front door as possible (minimize physical obstacles), include an oversized front porch deep enough for chairs (encourage socialization) and use low-maintenance building materials such as vinyl siding, stucco, stone or brick (reduce work).

The term Universal Design was coined by Ronald L. Mace, founder and former program director of The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. In 1997 Ron Mace collaborated with a group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental designers to develop the Seven Principles of Universal Design.

The seven principles of Universal Design are as follows:

Equitable Use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

Flexibility in Use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

Simple and Intuitive Use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

Perceptible Information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

Tolerance for Error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

Low Physical Effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably with minimum fatigue.

Size and Space for Approach and Use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

It turns out that universal design is a solution and strategy for living well.