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Sustainability and Universal Design

Understanding Universal Design

It is estimated that over 30 million Americans face the day to day activities which take place in their homes in a wheelchair or walker. Veterans coming home from the service of our country are faced with disabilities they have to deal with for the rest of their lives. Silents and Boomers want to “age in place” and have a home that is accessible and sustainable. The problem with finding a solution to remedy these issues was the houses that were designed in the past, prior to current plans, were ugly and expensive.

It has taken many years for housing designers and architects to find a better way to meet these needs. There is now a new and improved popular design style known as universal design. It is popular for the very reasons it was unpopular in the past. Architects have now styled homes to be beautiful, affordable and convenient for anyone to live in. If selling the home becomes necessary, the home now has more sale ability and it will appeal to most everyone.

People want a home that will grow old with them and now that designers and architects are incorporating universal design concepts into their work, this can now happen. What makes a home universal? Here are some of the most common design features:

  • Door openings are not only wide enough for a wheelchair but for someone without a handicap, wider door openings give the feeling of "openness" to a room and allow for easier furniture movement in and out of a house . (32" – 36" is suggested)
  • One story living which is barrier free is a must.
  • Wide hallways allow for moving anything from room to room with ease or using a wheelchair in the hallways. Hallways should be 36" – 42" wide.
  • Open floor space in the great room and kitchen allows for turning space for wheelchairs, playroom space for grandchildren and extra room for entertaining. (Today, most entertaining tends to center in the kitchen; hence, a center island in the kitchen and kitchen bars are very popular for conversation areas when entertaining.)
  • Thresholds that are flush with the floor keep everyone from tripping and help with wheelchair accessibility. Level floors allowing for transitions from inside to outside or room to room are important planning issues on blue prints.
  • Floors should be non-slip surfaces and sustainable as well. Wood flooring is sustainable and very popular again. Ceramic tile or stone flooring with a textured surface is sustainable and non-slippery. These types of floors are also appealing for the esthetics of warmth they generate.
  • Bathtubs and showers should also have non-slip surfaces. Shower doors should be eliminated and instead the design of a wide opening walk- in type shower for visual appeal is recommended. It also allows for access into the shower via a wheelchair. Non-slip surfaces are equally as good for small children.
  • Grab bars in the bathtub and shower can be practical as well as an added accessory to the décor of the fixtures. Today, manufacturers are considering what boomers would like to use in their homes but not have the fixtures look like their parent’s hospital rooms.
  • One touch light switches that control a general living area such as the entire downstairs is practical for conserving energy as well as giving light throughout the entire home when needed. Light switches should be easy to reach – lower the switch from a traditional height so your switch is accessible in a wheelchair. Rocker light switches are the best design.
  • Electric outlets should be no lower than 15" off the floor.
  • Outdoor walkways should be lit up and on a timer so they come on automatically and turn off automatically.
  • Levered door handles are easier for opening doors for everyone. Single lever faucets are beautiful and practical for adjusting water temperatures. This is especially helpful for someone without the full strength of their hands.
  • Motion detector water faucets are practical, conserve water and would alleviate any flooding from someone forgetting they turned on the water.
  • Consider lower closet rods when building a new home. If this doesn’t appeal to you, use adjustable closet brackets for later movement of the clothes rods. Clothing rods should be 20" – 44" above the floor.
  • Drawers – lower drawers should be deep and higher drawers shallow. Shelving no more than 18" deep.
  • Laundry room is on first floor of the house and has a wide door casing. Use a front load washing machine. Laundry supplies are on a shelf easy to reach via wheelchair.
  • Make full use of natural light. You will save money and the sunshine helps release endorphins and vitamin D. All stairways have light – natural light where possible.
  • Varying the kitchen counter height allows for children to work on the counter top and for someone in a wheelchair to use the countertop. Rounding off the corners of countertops is a safety suggestion for everyone. Recommended countertop height is a minimum of 28" and no higher than 34". 32" is preferred. Space for knees must have a minimum 24" height from the floor and be at least 30" wide.
  • When choosing a double kitchen sink concept installs at least one sink that is shallow.
  • Install an appliance lift for under countertop shelving.
  • Microwave and ovens can be installed approximately 31" from the floor.
  • Raise the dishwasher 6" – 8" off the floor.

Universal design is a relatively new paradigm that emerged from "barrier free" or "accessible design" according to Wikipedia. Universal design strives to be a broad-spectrum solution that produces buildings, homes, environments and products that are usable and effective for everyone, not just people with handicaps.

The Principles of Universal Design

Architects, product designers, engineers and environmental designers collaborated to establish the following principles:

  1. Equitable Use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Simple and intuitive
  4. Perceptible information
  5. Tolerance for error
  6. Low physical effort
  7. Size and space for approach and use

The traditional home design that services your family today will no, have the same fixtures and finishes or be the same home design as designs currently being built for the future. As life expectancy continues to get longer, and people’s desire to "age in place" becomes more common, the concept of universal design will continue to grow at a fast pace. Take a look around your home and make a list of everything that is inconvenient to you. This is one of the basic principles of designing a universal concept. Make it simple, make it convenient to you, make it useful and make it width and height appropriate.

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