Just as the “green” movement focuses on environmental sustainability, “universal design” focuses on social sustainability.
While environmental concerns are at the heart of the green movement, universal design recognizes that all people exist somewhere on a wide continuum of human ability – we all pass through childhood, periods of temporary illness or injury and old age. If you design for all the abilities on the continuum, you create environments, products and services that will be easier for all people to use, regardless of their abilities, age or current state of health.
Ronald L. Mace, Founder and former Program Director of The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, collaborated with a group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental designers to develop the “Seven Principles of Universal Design” in 1997. They include:
• The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
• The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
• Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level.
• The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
• The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
• The design can be used efficiently and comfortably with minimum fatigue.
• Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use regardless of user’s body size, posture or mobility.
For the built environment, the latest Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities are based on decades of experience by construction and building code experts with input from a wide range of industry sources interested in understanding and defining how people use elements and space. Different from the practice of universal design, ADA Standards are the minimum requirements for all areas of newly designed or newly constructed buildings and facilities and the altered portions of existing buildings and facilities.
When it comes to addressing the unique needs of an aging population and/or people with disabilities, the guidelines from the ADA, as well as the principles of universal design both go a long way toward enhancing everyday experiences and performance by identifying and removing barriers in our homes.
Ideally, homes that incorporate universal design features would be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible without the need for adaptation or specialized design. However, the reality is that very few existing or even new construction homes include them.
Baby boomers with an eye on aging in place are probably the largest group interested in applying universal design concepts in their homes. That’s why the majority of Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists (CAPS) have been remodelers, with more general contractors, designers, architects and health care consultants joining them in completing the required coursework developed by the National Association of Home Builders 50+ Housing Council in collaboration with Home Innovation Research Labs and the American Association of Retired People (AARP).
“We’re currently building a home for a couple in Monastery Woods who fully intended to age in place,” Pam Duke of McFarland Homes said. “They were planning to stay in their very large home with a lot of land for many more years. However, when the husband suffered a mild stroke and spent quite a while in rehab, they realized they needed to make some different decisions and started looking at other options.”
Designed to create an ease of living for empty nesters, McFarland’s paired ranch home plans offer the openness and flexibility this couple was searching for in a new home.
“The biggest step is four inches off the ground so creating a no-step entry was easy at the front door. Then, once you’re inside, everything is on the same level.” Duke explained. “We did quite a bit of research and worked closely with them to ensure they’ll have everything they need in their new home. A lot of things are ADA compliant, like the lower light switches and raised outlets. We did make the doorways and hallways a little wider than the ADA’s 32” since that felt a little too tight. We found a terrific Freedom 60” x 61” Accessible Shower online with a seat and grab bars plus space for a wheelchair if needed. Because this gentleman loves to cook, we installed drawers in all of the lower kitchen cabinets so he can easily wheel around and pull them open. We typically include a raised snack bar in our kitchens, but here we left it at counter height to make it easier for him to reach. He also loves to garden so we added to the poured pad on the back, and they will be installing these large cement garden boxes that he can tend to without impeding the lawn service.”
Many universal design features simply make good sense. It doesn’t matter if you are short or tall, young or old, have a disability or illness, universal design allows everyone to equally enjoy the same home – even as needs change.
“This couple was recently inside the home, picking out their interior selections,” Duke added. “You can already see how well suited it’s going to be for them.”