“Universal Design Is More Than Just Wide Hallways”

Universal design is a topic that many people are talking about today. It is widely accepted as a guiding principle, but it often is interpreted too narrowly. Yes, it means that a person in a wheelchair should be able to freely move about in a home, but it’s more than this. It’s more than just wide hallways and doorways. 

Originally launched as a concept to provide freedom of movement in a residence, it is so much more. Actually, that notion is a good summary statement; it’s just that there is so much more below the surface that is included in this idea that makes it so much more inclusive and meaningful.

Freedom of movement in a home – whether in a wheelchair, using a cane or walker, walking with some difficulty, or moving with no real issues or concerns – addresses all types of mobility that someone might experience. This includes arriving at the front door of the home, entering, moving about at will within the home, accessing and using storage areas (cabinets, shelves, closets), using appliances, preparing and eating meals (and clean-up), using the bathroom safely, sleeping, dressing, watching TV, and other common pursuits within the home – all while remaining reasonably safe in the space.

Universal design applies to current users of the living space, visitors and guests arriving at and using the space (for a very brief period to a more extended stay), and future owners and users of the space. This is what makes it universal – that it applies without serious limitations across the spectrum of individuals and time.

Now, there are more specific modifications that someone can undertake, and universal design does not specifically include color and finish choices (except those that can negatively affect our senses) or cause discomfort in some people, but so much is included in this design paradigm.

If we set out to make a home that could be used by first-graders and by grandparents, what would it look like – controls, lighting, heights of cabinets and fixtures, and more? Solving for this equation gives us universal design.

We take into account the many facets of a home and home many varied people could be using it – residents as well as visitors and guests. Then, we look for all of the areas of a home that need to function well to provide safety, comfort, convenience, and access – flooring, lighting, doorways, controls, furniture, kitchens, baths, laundry rooms, hallways, and more.

Making sure that certain areas of the home provide plenty of width and height for reasonable and fluid access is a great starting point, but there is so much more. People need to feel comfortable in their space – if they live there, if they are visiting from the house next door or across the street, if they are relatives from out-of-town, or if they have been invited to an event in the home.

The home must accommodate everyone who enters it, and the best way it can do this is by having universal design principals as part of its makeup. There is no certain number of improvements that need to be made in order for the home to benefit from universal design treatments, but all of them that are completed enhance the overall living experience for everyone who uses this home. From a few essential and easy-to-complete safety or access features to more extensive renovations, features that allow more unimpeded use of the dwelling can be undertaken – to the extent of the budget and desires of the owners.

Creating universal design improvements for a home is an overall strategy that we apply and not so much a template that we follow or overlay to complete a particular amount of change. There are many areas of the home that will benefit from our changes – including but not limited to basic accessways such as the hallway or doorways.

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