Universal design is becoming more popular as homeowners demand more comfort in their homes.

Many handicapped and elderly people are unable to get themselves in and out of a standard bathtub. Now on the market are walk-in tubs with water-tight doors, such as Safety Tubs' acytlic baths, which eliminate mildew, stains, cracks and fading, yet are also an attractive fixture for the bath. "I've heard from many of our customers who are so thankful they can take baths again after many years," says Rob Buete, president of Safety Tubs.

Universal design: The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

Universal design is not just for the elderly or disabled; it's for children, grandparents, short and tall people, men and women, as well as people with temporary or permanent disabilities. Universal-designed products allow different people, at different stages of their lives, to enjoy the same home.

And universal design doesn't mean institutional-like - or ugly. While many “assistive” devices used to be sold only through pharmacies or medical equipment dealers, many consumer products manufacturers are making and selling universal-designed products that not only are functional, but stylish.

“Consumers don't want their homes to look like a nursing home or like it's a home for an 'old person' because they don't see themselves as old,” notes Rosemarie Rossetti, Ph.D, of the Universal Design Living Laboratory, in the National Association of Home Builders' Nation's Building News. “So when [consumer product] companies… take the institutional design out of the equation, consumers and designers warm to these products.”

Rossetti was paralyzed from an accident in 1998. She had her husband are building a universal design home outside of Columbus, Ohio, which will serve as a “national model and learning laboratory for builders and architects, showcasing new methods, products and materials to … provide a livable environment for everyone in the household to function independently, regardless of age, height or physical limitation,” she says.

Universal design is getting popular for two reasons, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) notes: 1) homes with universal design elements look and work much better than the old models; and 2) more people want universal housing.

“The old way of designing homes just doesn't work anymore,” AARP notes on its Web site. “We all want comfort in our homes. Opening doors with arms full of groceries is as difficult at 30 as it is at 70. People live longer than they used to. More of us are living with disabilities; the traditional home that serves you well when you are healthy won't always take care of you when you break your leg or hurt your back.”

"Because universally designed products are created with ease-of-use in mind, it benefits everyone, especially those who have dexterity issues and physical problems," says Judd Lord, director of industrial design at Delta Faucet Co. The company's Brizo brand just introduced the Pascal Culinary Faucet, which uses advanced hands-free and touch-control technology.

The Principles Of Universal Design

Design professional Drue Lawlor, FASID, is an advocate of universal design. To her, universal design is about designing environments that provide occupants with comfortable, functional and safe settings, whether at home or at work.

Speaking at the recent Kitchen/Bath Industry Show in Chicago, Lawlor discussed this concept through the seven principles of universal design (compiled in 1997 by several universal design advocates at North Carolina State University's Center for Universal Design).

    1. Equitable use - The same means of use for all users, regardless of their ability. Also, the design must be appealing, Lawlor says. Some examples are power doors and electronic, “hands-free” faucets.

    2. Flexibility in use - Allows for a choice of methods, such as right- or left-handed, she notes. Also adaptable for a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

    3. Simple and intuitive use - Easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge or language skills.

    4. Perceptible information - The design uses different modes (pictorial, verbal or tactile) to present critical information, such as large print on a thermostat, Lawlor says.

    5. Tolerance for error - Minimize hazards and errors, and provide warnings. Examples are thermostatic controls, grab bars and anti-scald devices.

    6. Low physical effort - The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and minimizes repetitive actions, Lawlor notes. Examples are lever or loop handles on faucets, automatic or chair-height toilet seats and bidets.

    7. Size and space for approach and use - Appropriate space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use, regardless of user's body size, posture or mobility. An example would be controls in front of appliances.

Some of the more common universal design features, says the AARP, include no-step entry into the home; one-story living, so that places to eat, use the bathroom and sleep are located on one level; wide (32-36 inches) doorways so that wheelchairs (and large items like refrigerators) can pass through; wide (36-42 inches) hallways so that people and items move easily from room to room; and extra floor space, which makes everyone feel less cramped but also allows people in wheelchairs more space to turn.

Comfort features include: floors and bathtubs with nonslip surfaces help everyone stay on their feet; thresholds that are flush with the floor make it easy for wheelchairs, but also keep others from tripping; good lighting helps people with poor vision; and lever door handles and rocker light switches are great for people with poor hand strength or whose arms are full.

Universal Baths & Kitchens

Kitchen/bath designer and universal design expert Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, CBD, CAPS, is part of the project team on Rossetti's universal design home. Speaking at the International Builders' Show this past January, Peterson highlighted some universal design features for the bath and kitchen.

For the bath:

  • Extra-wide entries with no doors and no thresholds; clear floor space.

  • Showerheads and whirlpool tubs with self-cleaning features.

  • Multiheight vanities with flexible knee spaces.

  • Point-of-use, easily accessible storage.

  • Increased use of support rails that complement the aesthetics of the bath.

  • In-floor heat, towel warmers, heated toilet seats.

  • Anti-scald fittings.

  • Nonslip flooring.

  • Flush threshold, no-door shower, or shower designed for transfer (36 inches x 36 inches), or roll-in (36 inches x 48 inches).

  • Shower seat.

  • Hand-held shower with 60-inch long hose.

  • Tub deck with 15-inch extension for easier entry.

  • Comfort-height toilets.

For the kitchen:

  • Sufficient, clear floor space for work/traffic flow.
  • Point-of-use storage; open/visible storage; flexible base storage allowing for use as knee space.
  • Single-lever faucets.
  • No-bend height installation for dishwasher, oven and microwave.
  • Counter tops at a variety of common heights: 30 inches, 36-inches and 42 inches.
  • Side-by-side refrigerator/freezer.
  • Safety shut-offs and dual cueing (where available) on appliances.
  • Roll-out shelves or drawers in lower cabinets; glass doors or open shelves in upper cabinets.

In her book, “Gracious Spaces,” Peterson writes: “Whether an ideal to work towards or an attainable goal, universal design is gaining attention. It should be our objective that one day every designer of space or product will consider universal design principles just as integrally as the other elements and principles of design. We will no longer need a name - we will simply acknowledge as quality only those creations that respect the diversity in people.”