elderly woman and daughter in kitchen

Universal Design allows use and access across generations

Each day over 10,000 people turn 65, according to the Pew Research Center. (I've told you that over and over again.)

Many of them will be looking for ways to stay in their homes as they age and possibly become less able.

This could be a problem.

Housing has not traditionally been built with an eye toward lifetime use. A lot of homes that were built in the 1940s were a series of little boxes: small rooms with tiny hallways and high cabinetry. Over the years, as lot sizes continued to shrink, more two- and three-story homes were built, demanding long staircases.

Most homes have stairs as a part of the entrances and exits. Even as awareness was built with the passing of the American Disabilities Act, which provided building and design guidelines for public facilities to give greater access to people with disabilities, little concern was given to private residences.

Universal design is a term coined at N.C . State University’s School of Design. In simple language it means to maximize the use of a home for the maximum number of people who may enter or live in the home over their lifetime.

Universal design takes into account all of the little details of living in a home and seeks to develop an ease of use.

The concept of universal design extends from the first building block to the furnishings in a home. It provides a common sense approach to functional living environments for today and for independent living in the future, including those using wheelchairs.

It’s easier to plan when you are building a new home. Elevator shafts can be installed inside of closet space with temporary bottoms to be completed and utilized when needed. In the bathrooms, blocking can be installed for future grab bars. That way, structural support is ready. Otherwise, you have to cut through the sheetrock or tile to get the bar attached to the structural support framing in the wall. Padded and heated flooring can be installed. Step-less entrances into the house, wider hallways and doors, and a curb-less shower that is wheelchair accessible are all basic for the universally designed house.

Here are some key design elements in a universal design:

  • Single-level home designs
  • Open living floor plans
  • Elevators
  • Large bathrooms with walk-in tubs
  • Wheelchair-accessible kitchens and bathrooms
  • Eye-level cabinetry and storage with pull-out and pull-down shelving
  • Multi-level food preparation areas
  • Smart home systems for remote access to appliances, lighting, windows, blinds, sound and alarm systems
  • Raised heights for toilets and bathroom counters
  • Vertical platform (or wheelchair) lifts
  • Stylish grab bars
  • Use of handles or levers instead of knobs
  • Flooring that is easy on the knees and hips and that’s usable with walkers and wheelchairs
  • Transitions between floors
  • Convenient wall switches
  • Height of medicine cabinets and towel racks

Universal design also looks at traffic patterns; designing interiors with fewer steps and elevation changes.

Younger buyers want more adaptable space and lots of storage. Children can benefit from universal design with placement of shelving, storage, microwaves built into cabinetry on the lower level and switches. Even low VOC paint and carpet are part of universal design and can benefit growing children.

The cost to build a universal designed house is 3 to 5 percent higher than a traditional home.

An added benefit to owning a home that was either built as or remodeled to a universal design is that, once on the market, it is usable for the vast majority of the buying public.

Go to JournalNow.com for the full article by Zenda Douglas.

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