Back to basics
Universal design is an elementary concept that applies just to residential construction (a parallel approach exists for non-residential applications). It is intuitive in concept and simple to conceive. All we need to do is view a situation and ask ourselves how someone who enters this space might navigate it and use or operate the controls, pulls, handles, appliances, faucets, or other objects in the room. Then we anticipate and remove any limitations that we might discern.
Conversely, we should ask if anyone might be limited or kept from using a feature that is already present or that we are including. To the extent that no one is severely restricted or prevented from using an appliance, switch, cabinet or drawer pull, bathroom fixture, or other common feature, it would be considered universal and we would do well to include it.
A different approach
As much as we might like it, and as much as it might seem to make things simpler for us, there is not a universal or comprehensive aging in place strategy that can be applied to all homes or considerations for the simple reason that everyone presents different needs, requirements, and abilities – as do the homes themselves. We cannot know what each person is going to need to be able to use their home well, or how their needs might change over time. However, universal design is a strategy that helps us bridge this gap.
The idea of universal design is that the home environment can be designed in such a way as to allow anyone to use that space effectively. When specific needs are present, we can often find a way of appealing to them in a more aesthetic, generic way that works for more people than just the person for whom the design is based or to have it blend into the home environment without calling specific attention to the design for its specific use.
Rather than attempting to meet the current needs of a client as we discern them or as they are expressed to us, and then possibly need to make adjustments later as their needs change in the future, universal design is a more thoughtful, overarching approach that takes into account what people need today and how they might be able to use something in the future by making everything as accessible as possible for a wide range of abilities.
Universal design addresses the visitability aspect of a home by making it easily usable and accessible by people who don’t normally reside in that home but who visit regularly, occasionally, or rarely. Without knowing in advance what someone will require to be able to use the features and floor plan of a home well, universal design solves this by eliminating common barriers.