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What is Universal Design? 

Universal design, also called barrier-free design, focuses on making the house safe and accessible for everyone, regardless of age, physical ability, or stature. Most of us think immediately of ramps and grab bars when we think of accessible housing, but universal design goes far beyond that while remaining largely invisible to the casual observer. In fact, applying universal design concepts such as wider doors and hallways makes a house feel more spacious.

Here are some steps you can take to make your house more user-friendly:

Universal design is a building concept that requires spaces to be built in a way that can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of physical ability.

In the Kitchen

  • Use pulls instead of knobs on cabinets and drawers. These are much easier on arthritic hands.
  • Install a contrasting edge-band on countertops. This makes it easier for someone with failing eyesight to see the edge of the countertop. Anyone navigating a dimly lit kitchen for a midnight snack will also appreciate this touch.
  • Install varied-height cabinets and countertops. This is particularly appreciated in multi-cook families where, say, a very tall parent and a child may be working together to prepare a meal. Countertop heights can also be varied to accommodate particular tasks. For example, bakers value lower countertops for rolling out pastry and kneading dough.
  • Consider flexible appliances. Items such as under-the-counter refrigerator drawers make a kitchen more accessible for someone in a wheelchair. They are still pretty expensive, but the price is certain to drop over time. Elevating the dishwasher accommodates people in wheelchairs as well as people who may not be able to bend easily. You can even get a sink that raises or lowers at the touch of a button.
  • To accommodate a cook who uses a wheelchair, leave open space under the sink, cooktop, and prep counter, opt for higher toe-kicks on the base cabinets, install pull-down shelves in the upper cabinets, and choose a range with controls at the front or to the side of the cooktop (choose a model with a safety lock-out option if there are also young children in the house).

In the Bathroom

  • Install countertops with contrasting edge-banding.
  • In the tub/shower, choose an adjustable-height showerhead so the showerhead can easily be positioned at a comfortable height for anyone. Use only anti-scald or pressure balancing valves. The very old and the very young are particularly susceptible to burns from scalding water.
  • Offset shower and/or tub controls to the room side of the enclosure so they can easily be reached from outside the tub or shower.
  • Install grab bars or at least install blocking between the studs so that grab bars can easily be added in the future.
  • Install vanities of different heights if possible; even men of average height find they have to crouch while shaving at a standard vanity.
  • To provide wheelchair access, make sure the doorway is 32 inches wide, install a curb-free shower pan, choose a wall-hung sink with covered pipes, and try to provide a 60-inch clear floor space for turning the wheelchair.

Throughout the House

  • Choose lever handles instead of doorknobs.
  • Design hallways and doorways that are 32 inches wide or more.
  • Avoid changes in floor height, including thresholds.
  • Lower switches and raise receptacles so that they can be reached from a seated position.

The 7 Principles of Universal Design 

Universal design is a building concept that requires spaces to be built in a way that can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of physical ability. Following are the seven overarching principles of universal design:

Principle 1: Equitable use

Principle 2: Flexibility in use

Principle 3: Simple and intuitive use

Principle 4: Perceptible information

Principle 5: Tolerance for error

Principle 6: Low physical effort

Principle 7: Size and space for approach and use

Read more about each of these principles below.

Principle 1: Equitable Use

The principle of equitable use states that the design should be useful and marketable to people with diverse ability. This principle promotes the creation of a space that can be enjoyed by all. The space should not create separate or segregated areas based on ability. Privacy concerns should be met in the same manner for everyone. The design should appeal to all users, regardless of their ability.

Principle 2: Flexibility in Use

A universal design accommodates a wide range of different and individual tastes. It provides for left- and right-handed people. It also allows for different personal preferences in how a space is used. It can handle differences in precision and accuracy as people use the space.

Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use

This principle focuses on the space being easy-to-use and easy-to-understand. Regardless of prior experience or exposure to the space, people should be able to learn and adapt almost immediately without a complex set of instructions to read. The space should accommodate different learning styles and modes of learning, including language differences.

Principle 4: Perceptible Information

 The principle of perceptible information takes into account our learning modalities (the ways we learn) and incorporates them into the space. Universal design accommodates individuals whose sensory perceptions are more physical or tactile in the same manner as those individuals whose sensory perception is more auditory.

 Principle 5: Tolerance for Error

The space should make allowances for accidental use or misuse of the space. Universal design accomplishes this goal through the use of fail-safes, warnings, signals, and overrides. Such methods allow people to continue using the space and properly adapt to the correct or intended use.

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort

A universal space is designed for individuals with different expectations and diverse abilities. This sixth principle requires that the space be designed in a way that requires the lowest amount of effort and fatigue on the part of the user.

Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use

The final principle of universal design states that the space should accommodate and make allowances for any size of person (whether small or large, in a wheelchair, and so forth).


Copyright © 1997 NC State University, The Center for Universal Design

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11-11-2013 12-11-00 AM
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