Universal Design

by Doug Murray on October 15, 2011

Universal Design is a concept that has been around for a while. It is used more in terms of industrial design than applied to architecture, but it is just as valid to apply it to the design of buildings. Like the ipad and the ipod the idea is to design something that is user friendly for the widest possible audience; from children to the elderly, and all in between. It could also be called “barrier free design” to be more specific to architectural design. Even though at present there are only a few code requirements related to accessibility for single family homes; it makes sense while designing a new home or remodeling an existing home to keep in mind the idea of universal design.

Many clients have asked for their new home to be designed with all rooms on the same floor level- planning for the future when mobility issues might arise, or sometimes they already have a family member or friends who have mobility challenges.

Universal Design makes a home more user friendly for everyone regardless of physical abilities.

So, at the least, barrier free access should be provided: from Owner and guest parking to the house entry,  and that means the main entry that most arriving guests and family would use; to a main seating area; to a bathroom, that can be used without assistance; to a commonly used outdoor space.

The path of travel from the sidewalk or street to the house entry might be the first route to consider.  Is the location of the house entry obvious? Someone who has to exert extra  effort to get to the entry does want to backtrack to get to the front door.  Is it accessible via wheel chair? Is there adequate lighting for this path at night? Is the threshold of the entry door a barrier? There is a code requirement for commercial design that there be no more than ½” difference between the exterior  landing and the interior floor level; which is a good rule to apply to a residence.

Everyone would like to move through their environment with the least amount of obstacles. So, Universal Design principles are not just for the people living in their home.  It’s also for all those who might visit one’s home.  If a visiting friend or family member requires assistance to get around in a home, that person will have second thoughts about visiting again.

Most of the concepts that make a home Barrier Free would not add substantially to the cost of a new home or remodeling project as long as they are planned for in the process. Even without any mobility issues consider your own environment at home and work. What barriers do you face, or what might you face if you had to use crutches as a result of  knee or hip surgury? What parts of your built environment do you, or would you have to adjust to in order to move through your dailey routine?

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