Remodeling and Universal Design

universal design

The Universal Design remodeler in practice generally starts as an aging-in-place application.

However, including Universal Design principles just makes sense for any remodeling project.

Here’s what we’ll  explore:

1: Myths surrounding Universal Design
2: The roots of Universal Design
3: A holistic approach to remodeling
4: Universal Design is smart design
5: Universal Design and aging in place

Myths Surrounding Universal Design

Most people tune out when you mention of “Universal Design.” And even if they don’t tune out, they react with “That sounds too complicated, ” or “That’s just theory.” But in fact, Universal Design is just applied common sense in the design of what we build.

We apply Universal Design to building and remodeling our homes. This makes them responsive to the needs of human beings at every stage of life and in every circumstance of life. So, let’s first rid of the myths about Universal Design.

Myth #1: Universal Design is just about old people and aging

NOT SO: Universal Design is not just the same as designing for “Aging in Place.” It has a wider application.

Universal Design benefits a population of all ages, abilities, and disabilities. It encourages intuitively usable goods and accessible living environments and services. So, when we apply it to the housing stock, it is much more than just remodeling for seniors. It is all about making a home as comfortable and as usable for everyone living there.

Universal Design means building what works for everybody. This includes every able body and every disabled body.

That said, Aging in Place is nonetheless an important subset of Universal Design. And on this site, we admit treating it as pretty much the same thing, when it comes to remodeling. In fact, in our opinion, remodeling for aging in place is a great example of Universal Design in practice.

Myth #2: Universal Design means an ugly or clunky end result that will hurt my home’s value

NOT SO: No product designed with only function in mind can be attractive.

The aesthetics of Universal Design are as important as any other aspect. The appearance of any product can make it more usable. An attractive product naturally attracts use.  Products in the home are no exception.

Items such as grab bars, handrails, plumbing fixtures, counters and many more utilize Universal Design principles. Creative finishes on them enhance the beauty of both the product and the home. They also conceal the existence of the Universal Design below the surface.

Making the home beautiful but also welcoming to people of all ages and abilities makes it more valuable. This is because it now appeals to a broader market than it did before.

So Universal Design in remodeling results in both enhanced accessibility and enhanced value.

Myth #3: Universal Design is all about Accessible Design and the ADA 

NOT SO: “Accessible Design” is a narrowly defined term associated with the  ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). This regulates public accommodations. ADA does not apply to private homes.

However, Universal Design is certainly all about “accessibility” as a general concept. “Accessibility” is an umbrella term. It includes all aspects affecting a person’s ability to function within a living environment or participate in an activity.

So Universal Design is a flexible approach to the living environment at large. It considers the needs of everyone regardless of size, age, ability or disability. It does not follow a set of government-ordered specifications.

As applied to a remodeling project, it addresses the overall comfort and convenience of everyone living in the home. It takes into account every stage of human development and in every physical condition.

Myth #4: Universal Design will make my remodel more expensive

NOT SO: The incorporation of Universal Design will not necessarily increase the cost of a remodeling project. True, some universally designed products included in the project may be more expensive than others. An example would be a hands-free plumbing fixture. But the overall cost effect will be negligible and is easily offset by savings in other finishes elsewhere.

Myth #5: Contractors do not understand Universal Design

NOT NECESSARILY SO: In the context of remodeling, Universal Design is just an inclusive approach to the work of architectural design. It can be learned simply by applying common sense, awareness, and observation of the needs and abilities of the people for whom the design is intended to benefit. It is a philosophy applied throughout the design process with the end-user in mind.

More and more contractors are getting the Aging in Place certification through the National Association of Home Builders. Ask your prospective contractors about this. Besides, Universal Design is not rocket science. It is just a methodical approach to planning living space.

In the guides and checklists on this site, you already have access to all the practical basics of remodeling and all the questions you need to ask to arrive at a “universally designed” end result. And, if push comes to shove, you can even train your own contractor with the knowledge you have gained here.  Plus, on this site, you will find products that will be perfect for incorporation in your project.

So, having established what Universal Design is not, let’s dig into what it actually is and tries to accomplish.

The Roots of Universal Design

The concept of Universal Design arose out of the confluence of: 1) social movements of the last century; 2) developments in assistive technology to make products accessible for people with special needs; 3) developments in the field of ergonomics and design around human anatomy at all stages of development.

Parallel thought and work in Europe resulted in the term “Design for All,” which is essentially the same thing as Universal Design.

In 1997 researchers North Carolina State University laid out the Seven Principles of Universal Design. In summary, these are:

  1. Equitable Use: The design should appeal and be useful to users of any age or physical ability.
  2. Flexibility in Use: The design should suit and be adaptable to all preferences and abilities.
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use: The design should be easy to understand and use by everyone.
  4. Perceptible Information: People with sensory issues should understand the design easily, and “legibly.”
  5. Tolerance for Error: The design should be “user-friendly.” It should minimize exposure to hazards and accidents from unintended misuse.
  6. Low Physical Effort: The design should be usable with minimum operating force or bodily contortion.
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use: The design should permit easy reach for a person who is seated or standing. This is regardless of body size and mobility. It should allow for the use of assistive equipment or persons.

A Holistic Approach to Remodeling

The principles of Universal Design are interwoven and closely related to each other, especially when we start to put them into practice.

When we apply these principles to the field of building and remodeling, we start to see a clearer picture of how it works.

Until recently, the design, development, and marketing of homes and their remodeling were directed toward young, able-bodied adults. But with Universal Design, remodeling design takes a multi-generational approach. It now addresses life’s continuum. It considers a household that encompasses all ages, from toddlers to great-grandmothers, and all sharing the same space. It also considers household members who may have special needs arising out of physical limitations.

Universal Design is Smart Design

  • It is smart, modern design because it designs for all.
  • It is a smart investment because it appeals to your future buyers. They have the same concerns and will appreciate knowing that you have already addressed these concerns in the home they are considering.
  • It is also smart insurance against a possible future disability on one hand and the certainty of growing old on the other.

So how do we get smart about it? It is really pretty simple.

Universal Design Mindset

Our various checklists (see the related posts listed above) deal with most issues. But here are concrete examples of how to think through Universal Design and a kitchen or bathroom remodel.

Look at each component of the kitchen or bathroom and ask questions like, “How will Granny sit at the counter when she is preparing food? And where will the kids sit to do their homework? Always think of people growing up and growing old.

It’s easy to see that when we look at it in those terms, Universal Design really isn’t such a mysterious idea after all.

Features and Devices Incorporating Universal Design

Here are some concrete examples of Universal Design in action that will further dispel the myths we discussed earlier.

  • Hands-free plumbing fixtures
  • Counters and sinks you can raise and lower
  • Movable kitchen island on lockable casters
  • Comfort height counters
  • Adjustable counters
  • Accessible appliances. Consider drawer dishwashers either side of the sink instead of the standard dishwasher with its awkward drop-down front.
  • Taking maximum advantage of the “easy reach zone” (18” to 48’ from the floor)
  • A multitasking convection/microwave at shoulder height
  • French door ovens to avoid stooping for the awkward dropdown front oven

Universal Design and Aging-In-Place

The pressure of demographics makes Aging in Place the most important subset of Universal Design. It actually dominates the field. It is providing the impetus for Universal Design advances made in the area of home remodeling.

According to the 2016 Population Reference Bureau estimate, the number of Americans 65 and older will more than double from 46 million to 98 million by 2060. This is due to advances in medicine and improvements in diet and lifestyle.

It is also an indicator of the huge amount of work to be done to the existing housing stock for seniors to live out their lives comfortably at home rather than in institutions.

Here at Bartonby we believe in the noble overall goals of Universal Design in creating accessible spaces for all people but realize the importance of the trickle-down effect of Aging in Place in promoting those goals. So for us and our own efforts, we admit to treating Universal Design and Remodeling for Aging in Place as pretty much synonymous.

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