Universal design: Homes that welcome all ages, abilities

Pullout work surfaces, convenient placement of built-in appliances and low window heights are among the accessibility features in this kitchen.
Pullout work surfaces, convenient placement of built-in appliances and low window heights are among the accessibility features in this kitchen.
Kathy Tarantola / Taunton Press

Book information

“The Accessible Home,” by Deborah Pierce; Taunton Press; $27.95; softcover, 234 pages; 800-888-8286;

Universal UClick

It seems that baby boomers get the credit and the blame for a lot of cultural trends. Those of us born between 1946 and 1964 are such a huge demographic bubble in the national population that the sheer numbers tend to result in specific and recognizable shifts in everything from consumer spending to health care issues.

One of those trends involves residential architecture that reflects and accommodates the realities of aging, either by boomers or their parents. Often referred to as “universal design,” this discipline recognizes that throughout their lives and especially in their later years, people have differing physical and sensory abilities that their living environment can and should accommodate. Through illness, accident or simply the normal changes brought on by aging, most of us will discover how things considered “standard” features in a home become barriers and obstacles when abilities we once took for granted are gone or compromised.

These changes, and the ways homes can be designed or adapted to them, are the subject of Deborah Pierce’s The Accessible Home. Pierce, an architect, offers a comprehensive look at design features that remove barriers and improve access, and that make for greater independence and a better quality of life. But more important, she uses the book’s introductory sections to provide a broad context that is about people rather than about buildings.

Probably our most iconic cultural image of “disability” involves a person in a wheelchair trying to cope with unfriendly obstacles such as curbs, stairs, narrow doorways or out-of-reach storage cabinets. However accurate on some levels, such a narrow definition of the term is decidedly incomplete, as Pierce explains. While extreme or permanent disabilities might be relatively rare, other limitations affect one out of four persons at some point in their lives, and not all the issues are related to mobility.

Conditions such as partial or complete loss of hearing or eyesight, for example, are far more common than severe spinal cord injuries or other limitations that prevent walking, and they can present numerous difficulties in coping with everyday tasks. Degenerative neurological conditions can affect balance, space perception and muscle control. Joint pain or arthritis can make it difficult to use doorknobs, faucet controls, cabinet latches and other common hardware. Even ordinary decreases in strength or flexibility can render an otherwise cherished home unfriendly, and Pierce notes that most homeowners queried want to “age in place,” that is, to stay in their home even if they become disabled.

With this broader perspective outlined, the book turns to the specifics of design. As Pierce understands and conveys it, ”universal design” aims at creating buildings and spaces that allow use by the disabled and able-bodied alike. The best features, she emphasizes, are user-friendly to all persons and don’t give the home an institutional look or a makeshift appearance of improvised afterthoughts that detract from a home’s aesthetics or value. The details of the best designs are many and varied, but some features are common to nearly all the homes featured:

•  Wider traffic areas: Hallways, door openings and other “corridor” spaces should be wide enough (typically 36 inches minimum) to accommodate a wheelchair.

•  Open sightlines: Connections between rooms should be as open as possible, both for traffic issues and to avoid any one shared space being too isolated.

•  Introduce contrasts: Especially for sight-impaired persons, colors and textures can be simple and reliable indicators of a change in direction, floor level or other features.

•  Choose user-friendly hardware: Manual dexterity and grip strength vary widely in individuals and will change for one person over time, so plan for those differences. Lever door handles (vs. round knobs) are a good example of friendlier design.

• Multilevel storage: Allowing access to storage at many levels ensures that items can be placed and retrieved by the person who uses them most, whether standing or sitting.

• Expand bathrooms: Bathing and grooming rituals and toilet use are daily practices that may require assistance for some, so spaces should allow for both mobility aids and human helpers.

• Window placement: Taller windows, with their sills placed low, help ensure that everyone can take in the views.

There are dozens of other smart amenities and details built into the book’s featured homes, and Pierce devotes entire chapters to different room types — approaches and entries, living and dining areas, kitchens, baths, bedrooms and utility spaces. It turns out there is a small irony inherent in the practice of “universal” design; some of the best solutions are tailored personally to the needs and abilities of individual users.

The book does a nice job of balancing the human and technical issues of a complex subject, and of highlighting good design aesthetics in the process. It seems most discussions of universal design topics are short articles focused on wheelchair users. The broader approach that Pierce takes here is a welcome and eminently useful exception.

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