How is an aging baby boomer generation changing the design of homes?

Universal Design Features

Stairless entryways and lever door handles provide easy access to everyone.
Stairless entryways and lever door handles provide easy access to everyone.
Realistic Reflections/Getty Images

Universal design is based on several concepts:

  • Equitable use: All people use the design features in the same way.
  • Flexibility in use: The feature can be adjusted depending on the user; for example, both right- and left-handed people could use it.
  • Simple and intuitive: Any user could understand the feature, regardless of knowledge level or language.
  • Perceptive information: It's easy to determine information associated with the feature.
  • Tolerance for error: The design minimizes danger and potential consequences of misuse.
  • Low physical effort: You won't break a sweat.
  • Size and space for approach and use: Whether seated or standing, you have the room to get around and the ability to reach for things.

[source: Connell et al.]

To see what this looks like in practice, let's take a virtual tour of a home that incorporates universal design. Stepless entry is a hallmark characteristic of a universal design home; it's easy for anyone to enter. When you open the door, notice the lever door handle. It's much easier than a door knob when your hands are full of groceries or if you have arthritis.

On the ground floor, you should find everything you need, from the kitchen to a bathroom, but most notably, at least one bedroom should be on the ground floor. It will probably be the master bedroom, so that when the occupants can't climb stairs anymore, they'll be able to live on just the first floor.

Just because everything's on one floor doesn't mean that boomers won't have two-story homes; rather, guest bedrooms or home offices might be upstairs. If a home does have more than one level, stairs should be stained slightly different colors to aid someone with poor vision. Another option might be to install stacked cabinets, which can be converted to install an elevator when you need one to get from floor to floor.

No matter which room you head to first, you'll be walking in wide hallways -- everything should accommodate a wheelchair's turning radius. Not in a wheelchair yet? Everything will just look spacious and open. You're likely walking on hardwood floors as opposed to movement-restricting carpet. Light should be abundant throughout the home, and light switches, as well as outlets and thermostats, should be no higher than 48 inches (1.2 meters) off the floor [source: Perkins].

In the kitchen, everything is placed for easy use by both a person in the wheelchair and a standing person. The microwave is on the counter as opposed to mounted within the cabinets, and the countertops and cabinets are a bit lower than in some houses.

Inside a universal design kitchen Inside a universal design kitchen
Inside a universal design kitchen
Realistic Reflections/Getty Images

Nature's calling, so let's check out the bathroom. The toilet is higher, and the countertops are set at different levels to accommodate different users. Instead of a bathtub, there might be a walk-in shower, which could become a "wheel-in" shower if necessary. The wall of the shower has been reinforced so that a grab bar can be added for someone who needs help getting in and out of the shower. And don't think that a grab bar will look straight out of the nursing home -- many companies are now making more stylish accessories for aging baby boomers, including designer shower chairs and grab bars.

On the next page, we'll learn about incorporating universal design.