While aging in place focuses on creating solutions that are specific to an individual in their home, universal design can apply to many areas of our environment in addition to residential. Nevertheless, universal design forms the foundation for successful aging in place designs that are not specific to a certain individual or limitations they may have.
Originally, universal design was viewed as a way of modifying spaces – especially public ones – to accommodate the needs of those requiring some type of mobility assistance (walkers and wheelchairs for instance). It is much more comprehensive than this.
In residential design, we can create a solution for someone who requires special consideration for opening or using doorways, for negotiating an entrance, for navigating the interior spaces, for using a bathroom comfortably and safely, or similar needs, but we can design for others at the same time and accommodate a wider range of needs or abilities.designing just for them is not the answer.
The more effective solution is incorporating their needs into the needs of the general population so that no one feels any more special than anyone else in what was done to make their life simpler and easier. Hence, we have universal design.
Universal design in its essence is all things to all people – as much as practical. It means that a 5-year old and a 95-year old can both reach and operate handles and controls regardless of their physical strength or height because design considerations have made this possible.
Universal design accommodates special needs, but it also fits into general, effective, attractive designs so that most anyone can function well within the space – whether they live there full-time or not – and that nothing jumps out as an obvious solution for a particular or perceived need. It just looks like an attractive design feature or a good solution for a potential weakness in the design.
Doing things just because they conceivably make life simpler for part of the population while inconveniencing other persons is not the aim of universal design. In such cases, better solutions need to be sought and achieved. While a ramp or a lift near an entrance, porch, or doorway may call attention to that feature and suggest that someone has a need that is accommodated by that device, an elevator or gently inclined and well-landscaped walkway leading to the entrance and accounting for the change in grade is one that serves everyone. That is the concept of universal design.
Universal design features fit into their surroundings. While the design solutions are quite effective and serve nearly everyone that might come in contact with them, they don’t necessarily disclose the underlying reason for their creation or installation. Someone might walk up an inclined sidewalk to an entrance without giving it any special consideration but might not want to walk up a ramp that looks like it is there to accommodate someone with physical limitations,. Universal design objectives focus on appealing to the general rather than specific needs.
There are certain aging in place or accessible design elements that we may desire to use in a particular home to make it comfortable, safe, and usable for the people living there, but we might be able to appeal to an even wider audience – including those who would visit that home or potentially own it in the future. We want to make sure that we can create universal design solutions whenever possible so that they appeal to and can be used by several people and not just one or a few. As the term suggests, universal design promotes use by everyone.