What is universal design?

Universal design is a method of designing a home so that aesthetics and function can coexist. With Baby Boomer Americans -- born between 1946 and 1964 --getting older and expressing a desire to "age in place" (stay put as they age rather than move into nursing homes), universal design is becoming a popular factor in the construction of homes.

The concept was developed in the 1970s by an architect who was wheel chair bound and felt that all buildings should be accessible to everyone.


The basic concepts behind universal design include:

  • Equitable use: Everyone can use the design features the same way.
  • Flexibility: Features can be adjusted for different users
  • Simple and intuitive: Anyone can figure out how to use it
  • Tolerance of error: the design reduces the chances of danger or other consequences if it's misused
  • Low physical effort
  • Size and space for approach and use: There's enough room for people to get where they need to go, no matter what position they're in [source: Connell et al.]

Some examples of universal design features include:

  • Step-less entry
  • Level door handles (easier to use then door knobs)
  • At least one bedroom on the ground floor
  • Wide hallways in case a wheelchair is one day required
  • Hardwood floors (carpet is restricting)
  • Low light switches and outlets
  • Low countertops
  • Higher toilets
  • Walk-in/wheel-in shower with grab bar

It can be very expensive to remodel your home to incorporate universal design, but if you build your home with universal design in mind initially, it may cost only about five percent more [source: Taylor], or there may be no cost difference at all, which will save you a bundle later in life when you won't have to move to a retirement home.