Universal Design: What Is It and Why You Should Care

lca bathroom

Example of a step-free shower and Universal Design bathroom. Photo by Chris Usher.

ST. LOUIS — I’ve spent the past two days here attending a conference dedicated solely to Universal Design. Una-what? In spite of what it sounds like, Universal Design isn’t a Carl Saganese approach to designing the cosmos.

The definition of Universal Design, some shorten it to UD, is a process of designing spaces — cities, streets, buildings, homes, rooms – “that enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness, and social participation,” according to Edward Steinfeld and Jordana Maisel of the University of Buffalo’s IDEA Center.

So, why should you care about UD? Well, you’re getting older. Sorry to break the news to you but it’s true. Take a look around your home and determine if you (or your parent) age there easily? Are doorways and hallways wide enough to roll a wheelchair through? Is there a kitchen counter low enough to sit and prepare supper? Are there grab bars installed in the bath or shower? If you answered “No” to any of these, read on.

I’m 41 and am a full-time caregiver for my parents who live with me in Florida. I can tell you my house is no where ready to have my them live in it. What I learned at this conference is that I’m in the majority of Americans who are getting or will get a huge wake up call when the times comes that you need UD amenities in your home and you’re in no position to install them. So why not do them now?

Here are some things to consider:

  1. Think of the future you. Sure you’re healthy now, hiking the Andes or SCUBA diving in Belize. But it might not always be that way. Do your future self a favor: audit your house today. What needs to change now? In a few years? How can you do this, you ask? There are designers who focus on UD elements in your home and they’re called Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists (CAPS). Use the CAPS locator here to find one in your area.
  2. Think of your family. There are more multi-generational homes than ever before, if your grandchildren visit often or live with you, many of the UD amenities that appeal to older people are ideal for the little folks too. A lower countertop allows a grandchild to help you bake cookies but is also very useful if you need to sit while preparing supper. Hallways wide enough for a stroller are wide enough for a walker or wheelchair. Get the gist?
  3. Think safety. Everything about UD has safety as an underlying factor. Properly lighting rooms and walkways are ideal for aging eyes are key. Fall prevention is key: ditch throw rugs, have a step-free shower, build in ramp into your home, all these can be designed to where it’s not noticeable and doesn’t look institutional.

OK, so I’ve truncated the list (see resources below) but you get the idea of what you need to do. Understandably, it’s likely you can’t afford a complete renovation of your home but some of the changes are no- or low-cost fixes that can be done by you or your handyman right now.