Should your house be ready to accommodate neighbors, friends, and relatives with special needs?
Why are most interior doorways only 30 inches wide? Why are so many doorknobs hard to grip? And why do so many homes have a long stairway between the front door and the bedrooms?
Two typical answers to these questions would be, “because that’s the way we’ve always built houses” and “because these houses meet code.” (Those two reasons happen to be pretty weak, by the way.)
We’re all getting older, and many of us have family members with special needs. Ideally, the homes we build today will work well for people with a wide range of abilities. Designing buildings that can meet the needs of people with varying abilities is called “universal design.”
Most families have members with special needs; for example, my sister-in-law Caryn is blind. Caryn’s not a complainer, but I’ve learned a lot from Caryn about sidewalks. Some sidewalks are easy for blind pedestrians with canes to navigate; others are unsafe. Ideally, sidewalk surfaces should be consistent and predictable, with as few bumps and hard-to-interpret transitions as possible.
People come in all shapes and sizes
Universal design strives to make buildings easy for a wide variety of people to use, including older people and people with disabilities. As much as possible, universal design attempts to meet the needs of people of all ages, sizes, and abilities.
A house that follow universal design principles often aims for “visitability” — including ease of use by friends in wheelchairs — and aims to accommodate owners planning an “aging in place” retirement. A house built to universal design principles should make it easy for the owners to live independently in their home for as long as possible.
Features that fall into the “universal design” category should be usable by a wide variety of people of different sizes and abilities. Accommodations that address a specific need — for example, high kitchen counters for a client who is 6’8” tall, or smoke alarms for deaf people — do not fall into the category of universal design.
I’m still the same, but the world appears to be changing
I’ll be sixty next year. I still enjoy downhill skiing, bicycle trips, and climbing mountains, but my joints are getting stiffer, and I see the writing on the wall. Some things are already harder for me to do than they used to be.
I was 25 years old when I built my house. Back in 1980, I put a few rows of solid blocking between the studs behind the wall tiles in my tub/shower area, and I installed a rugged stainless-steel grab bar. For several decades, I never used it. In recent years, however, I’ve begun to notice how handy it is.
Just a few years ago I started noticing that the print is getting much smaller on all kinds of packaging. How are we supposed to read those tiny letters anyway? And how can I read the menu in this restaurant when the lighting is so dim?
Many everyday objects are poorly designed
Even when I was younger, back when my eagle-sharp eyes worked in the dark, I noticed that designers have a very limited idea of who they are designing for. One of my chief design complaints has always been that manufacturers don’t make things for people with big hands and big feet who live in a cold climate. (That’s me.)
My hands are larger than average. If my hand is reaching for a D-shaped handle — on a kitchen cabinet, refrigerator, or coffee mug — I want it to be a four-finger handle. But it never is. It’s either a three-finger handle or a two-finger handle. These handles are apparently designed for 12-year-olds from China. (If I can’t put my hand in it, it’s not a handle; it’s a “fingerle.”)
If a handle is supposed to be used outdoors, it should accommodate a hand with a mitten on it. During the winter, when it’s often below zero, I favor deer-skin mittens with wool liners. But I often can’t open car doors with my mittens on. (I can’t begin to slip my hand into that tiny slot.) So is this car intended for use by Florida teenagers? Why can’t designers make car handles for adults in Vermont?
Once I’m in my car, I quickly realize that the pedals are also designed for delicate young women. I wear size 12 Sorel boots in winter — the kind with felt liners — so there is a good chance that when I push down the clutch, I’m also going to hit the brake pedal. Thanks, designers.
Choosing a countertop height
What’s a good height for a kitchen counter? Well, that depends on your height. The average American woman is often happy working in a kitchen with 36-inch-high counters. But if you are taller than average, you’ll want higher counters. (When it comes to sinks, it’s especially important to have a high counter. After all, the work height for a kitchen sink is the bottom of the sink, not the level of the countertop. An adult man will usually get a sore back if he does a lot of dishes at a sink installed in a 36-inch counter.)
If you make bread, like I do, you really want a low counter — tabletop height or lower — for kneading. When I’m kneading dough, I usually just give up with counters altogether; I put the dough in a big stainless-steel bowl on the floor, and knead it down there.
How do these personal gripes illuminate the concept of universal design? They are a reminder that designers often do a poor job of imagining all of the different types of people who will be using their tools; and they provide examples showing that some things will never be “universal” — because people are different.
Can elderly tenants operate their apartments?
Back in the 1990s, I used to provide capital needs assessments for nonprofit housing projects, and I inspected hundreds of elderly housing units all over the state of Vermont. When I walked in the door of an apartment, I was often greeted by an elderly woman who said, “Sonny, would you do me a favor and open this window? I never can get it open.”
Remember, window designers: If your grandmother can’t open your window, you haven’t designed a good window. You have failed.
Universal design features
A little bit of web surfing will lead you to documents that list universal design features. These lists vary, but most include the following items:
- The main entry door should have a no-step threshold that easily accommodates wheelchairs.
- Exterior concrete slabs, decks, balconies and patios should be no more than 1/2 inch lower than the interior floor level.
- The main entry door should be roofed.
- All of a home’s rooms should be on a single floor; failing that, the main living areas, the master bedroom, and at least one full bathroom should be on the main entry floor.
- A house with an open floor plan is preferable to a house with many small rooms.
- Interior doors should be at least 34 inches wide (to provide a minimum 32-inch-wide clear opening).
- Hallways should be at least 42 inches wide.
- Door latches should have lever handles instead of round knobs.
- Faucets should have lever handles.
- Kitchen cabinets should be equipped with D-shaped cabinet pulls and drawer pulls; these handles should accommodate four fingers.
- Window hardware should be easy to operate.
- Rooms should have better-than-average task lighting, hallway lighting, and stair lighting.
- Light switch boxes and thermostats should be mounted between 36 inches and 48 inches above the floor.
- Wall-mounted switches should be rocker-style switches.
- Electrical outlets and telephone jacks should be no lower than 15 inches above the floor.
- The workspace and counter heights in the kitchen should be adjustable.
- The refrigerator/freezer should be a side-by-side model.
- The clothes washer and dryer should be front-loading models and should be mounted on a raised platform.
- At least one first-floor bathroom should be large enough to include a clear 60-inch-diameter circle designed to allow a wheelchair to turn around.
- If possible, at least one first-floor shower should be a curbless roll-in shower.
- The shower should include a hand-held flexible shower fixture.
- Any tubs, showers, and toilets should be equipped with nearby grab bars.
Although the features listed above are commonly described as “universal design” features, not all of the features are really universal. While almost everyone (except my sister-in-law Caryn, of course) benefits from better lighting on stairs, and almost everyone finds lever-handled door latches easier to use than old-fashioned round doorknobs, some of the features on the list come with disadvantages for some users. Families with mischievous toddlers may prefer higher light switches, for example, and many of the listed features use up floor area that some homeowners might prefer to devote to other purposes.
What does universal design have to do with green design?
Do universal design principles have anything to do with green design? Perhaps. A green home should have a good thermal envelope — with high-performance windows, thick insulation, and a low rate of air leakage — and these features should result in a very comfortable indoor environment, with even temperatures and no drafts. That type of environment benefits all occupants, but may be especially appreciated by the elderly.
On the other hand, some of the features listed above are at odds with green principles:
- To conserve energy and materials, a green home should be as small as possible; this principle conflicts with guidelines that call for wider interior hallways, wider doorways, and bathrooms that are large enough for a wheelchair to turn around in.
- To minimize moisture intrusion problems, it’s best if exterior patios and decks are at least 7 inches lower than the interior floor. Grade-level entries are particularly hard to detail in snowy climates.
- Side-by-side refrigerator/freezer models use more energy than models with a top-mounted freezer.
- One-story homes usually use more energy per square foot than two-story homes.
These apparent conflicts can be resolved, of course. After all, design decisions almost always involve tradeoffs and compromises; universal design principles are no different. Nevertheless, the required trade-offs should be noted by the designer and understood by the client before final decisions are reached.
Builders who are interested in universal design and aging in place can find lots of useful resources on the web; to get you started, I've included a few links in the "Related Articles" sidebar above.
If you are looking for a consultant to help you, you might want to talk to an NAHBNational Association of Home Builders, which awards a Model Green Home Certification.-certified Aging-in-Place Specialist or a NARI-certified Universal Design Remodeler.
If you are building a spec house or rental housing, universal design principles make a lot of sense, especially if you are building in an area where house prices or rents are high enough to justify the cost of the necessary features. However, if you are building a custom home, you’ll probably be accommodating the specific needs of your clients rather than employing universal design principles.
Even if your clients aren’t particularly focused on wheelchair accessibility or aging in place, it may be worth reminding them that they aren’t getting any younger.
Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Vermont House Uses Only Half a Cord of Firewood.”
- Image #1: Athene Rafie
- Image #2: Noah Manning
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