What is universal design? The American Society of Interior Designers defines it as “design that serves the broadest range of people, regardless of levels of ability, mobility, age or gender and without the need for specialized design.” According to North Carolina State’s Center for Universal Design, it is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” Simply put, universal design most often refers to design that can adapt with the user without major upgrades or renovations. This means that the design of the home is adaptable so that its components can be used one way for one resident and then changed to accommodate the next resident. Not only does universal design comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but also it takes design a step further by making homes adaptable.
Universal design is not complicated. It includes simple things like replacing cabinetry hardware with pulls instead of knobs, using lever type handles on faucets and doors and replacing a deep sink with a shallow one. These minor adjustments will make it much easier for your Mom who has arthritis to use or even your son who has a broken arm from last week’s sports game. Installing pullout shelving will make the contents in your cabinets accessible to everyone.
In home’s today, standard height for bathroom and kitchen counters is 36 inches, which can be difficult for someone in a wheelchair or walker. Also, most counter tops today are flush with the cabinetry underneath, again, making it difficult for a walker or wheelchair to get close. In universal design, the counter height would be varied and include counters at the standard 36 inches and lower counters at 30-32 inches, making them accessible to a wider range of people. These counter tops would also have a rolled edge, which help prevent items or spills from rolling or spilling off the counter. The counter top may also be extended by 4 inches over the cabinetry underneath to allow a chair or walker to pull up to the work surface.
Other universal design elements include replacing windows with ones that open with a crank or slide versus windows that open by being pushed up or down. Doorways and hallways should be widened to 42 inches to accommodate a wheelchair or walker. The edges of doors, windows and counter tops should be rounded to avoid any painful bumps.
So how does universal design relate to sustainable design and architecture?
Today, there are numerous efforts around the country to build new homes and remodel existing homes to be more ecologically sustainable. These upgrades include wiser use of water and energy through numerous upgrades, from windows, to appliances and the materials used. But the most sustainable home can become unlivable if universal design concepts are not considered. All people in any stage of life should be able to live in a sustainable home. Therefore sustainable homes need not just help reduce energy or water use, but should also enable a comfortable, livable lifestyle for its residents. The greenest home becomes an emotional and physical handicap in itself if it is not designed for the health of the home and the homeowner, as both get older.
As homes get upgraded with smart features and connect to the smart grid, universal design will become even easier for the residents through automation. Smart homes will allow residents to automate their appliances, lighting, thermostat, sinks, toilets, showers, and other features around the home. Residents will be able to set features of their home to their liking in order to accommodate their needs. The home will be adjustable to serve its residents.
As developers around the country – and the world – upgrade existing homes and buildings, it is critical for them to consider how livable new sustainable design elements are for all groups of people. It will cost much more for the homeowner – and the earth – if homes must constantly be upgraded. Homes should be designed so that people in all stages of life can live comfortably in them, without the need for expensive upgrades. In the US, the average age continues to climb, with nearly one in five people aged 65 and older in 2030, according to the US Census Bureau. In order to accommodate an aging population and also green homes and buildings, both need to be considered in all new construction and upgrades.
A home is truly a sustainable home if can withstand the test of time, from using long-lasting and green materials, to accommodating the changing life stages of its residents. Universal design and sustainability go hand in hand for creating a smarter, greener and more livable future.