Universal design is a great underlying strategy for residential design. In commercial applications, it is called accessible design so that we can keep the idea of universal design as a strictly residential approach. Visitability, which is also only a residential idea, is closely aligned with universal design. Then, we have aging in place, which, is not so much a specific type of design, but rather an approach or strategy for individual dwellings that appeals to the specific needs of the individuals in those homes. It, too, is just a residential concept.
When we design for aging in place or create aging in place solutions for our clients, we are evaluating their needs in detail (mobility, sensory, and cognitive) and how they relate to their home as well as how their home allows them to function within it, There is not a specific design that we look to when we think of creating an aging in place functionality. Instead, we look at multiple factors to arrive at what seems to be the best result for the client – and just for them. Regardless of how similar or dissimilar our approach and the solutions we implement might be to the home we worked on previously or the one we will do next, this solution is geared just toward appealing to this one specific client.
That said, when we can use universal design principles we can often accomplish effective aging in place designs that appeal to the specific client but additionally to other members of the household and guests and visitors that might come to the home at some point. Even when we use an adaptive design for aging in place solutions, it has the same outcome as universal design.
Adaptive design is taking a home and modifying it (or certain portions of it) to accommodate a person’s changing needs. It means that last week, for instance, they were able to do certain tasks (such as stand, use both hands, or walk unaided) that are difficult or not possible for them today. Therefore, their home must be modified to allow them to continue participating at the same level that they have in the past.
Let’s say that need to sit down at the sink to groom themselves, wash their face, or brush their teeth because of balance or stamina issues that make standing difficult, or they now are using a walker and sitting is more comfortable for them at the sink, or they now are using a wheelchair for moving about their home. We can change the design of their sink by lowering it or by opening up the front of it – or both. To open up the front of it, we can remove the toe-kick strip and remove or hinge the floor of the cabinet so it will be out of the way. Then, we can add retractable tracks so the doors can slide back out of the way when the sink base needs to be used with slide under access. The same thing could be accomplished by simply removing the doors. If the sink base is a modular box, it can be unbolted from the adjacent box or boxes and removed with the countertop bridging the space and resting on the remaining cabinets.
Rather than doing such a design for a client (or a friend or even ourselves) in response to a changing life need or ability as an adaptive solution, we could approach it before there was any need and do the same thing as a universal design solution. We can create a cabinet with retractable doors that disappear inside the cabinet (much like an old entertainment center) when it needs to be opened all the way to allow someone to sit in that space. We don’t have to wait for any event to call for it. We would know that the client (or anyone else for whom we do this) might have other family members, guests, or visitors who desire to sit at the sink occasionally. The design would accommodate this desire but would not result because it was an immediate need. Therefore, regardless of whether a sit-down, slide-under sink was created as an adaptive solution to meet a new need, or it was done as a universal design solution to accommodate anyone who might need it at some future date (with no one or specific time in mind), the solution would look exactly the same and be approached the same as well.
This is just one example of many designs we can create using universal design principles that will fit into the overall look of the home without calling undue attention to themselves and will be functional for aging in place needs.