Is your home ready for your future life? Whether your plans include modifying your home to make room for a growing family, or creating a space that will help you enjoy retirement in your home, incorporating Universal Design into your home will help create a successful and lifelong home.

Everyone wants to feel successful and comfortable in their homes no matter what age or stage in life. “Opening doors with arms full of groceries is as difficult at 30 years old as it is at 70 years old,” says AARP. Having a comfortable and accessible home long term is a dream for most.  According to AARP, 90% of people surveyed over the age of 50 want to stay in their homes long term.  “We know for a fact that people want to stay at home as they age,” says Lou Tobian, Associate State Director for Community Outreach. “Universal Design allows them to do that. It’s a lot less expensive to use Universal Design as you build or renovate your home than to move to a long-term care facility.”

Universal Design “is an approach to design that increases the potential for developing a better quality of life for a wide range of individuals. It creates products, systems, and environments to be as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation.” In fact, Universal Design incorporates features that can make for a comfortable home experience for all people, not just the average person.

Core principles for Universal Design

Making a home functional and accessible to every person benefits everyone, for both the short term and long term. For example, a wide entrance door with no steps or stairs is good for someone in a wheelchair, but is also useful for a newly walking toddler or someone pushing a baby stroller. “Universal Design is a goal that puts a high value on diversity, equality and inclusiveness.”¹ It’s a smart idea to make Universal Design home improvements over time and before retirement, as these remodeling costs can eat into a fixed income and create a delay for those who suddenly need accessibility or improved home functionality.

The core principles for Universal Design are:

  • Equitable Use
  • Flexibility in Use
  • Simple and Intuitive Use
  • Perceptible Information
  • Tolerance for Error
  • Low Physical Effort
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use

A space designed with these principles helps empower those within the space, which is often why you hear the term “design for all” or “inclusive design” when you read about Universal Design.

Home improvements that help with lifelong living in the home

If you plan on remodeling your home or making improvements, consider incorporating Universal Design into your plans. Many of these projects listed below are part of the Universal Design philosophy and will look good in the home no matter what life stage you are experiencing. To ensure your home fits the requirements of a Universal Design, consider hiring a general contractor who specializes in these types of improvements.

  1. Lever handles instead of twisting knobs: this goes for the doors, drawers and any other closed off areas. A lever is much easier to grasp and maneuver and works for multiple hand sizes and abilities.
  2. U-shaped drawer pulls: the U-shape is easier to grip and grab compared to other types of drawer pulls
  3. Rocker light switches: rocker switches can easily be moved to the “off” and “on” positions with little effort, and are considered more accessible than traditional toggle switches
  4. Wider doors and hallways: 36″ wide is an ideal width for hallways and doorways, both for wheelchairs, strollers, or for two people walking side-by-side. Consider an even wider pathway for longer hallways or if more turnaround space is required.
  5. Better entryway design: If you are considering an entryway remodel, or a front porch remodel, it may be a good idea to think about the other accessibility elements that can significantly improve it. Handrails on both sides of a ramp and staircase, a covered entryway, easy-to-see house numbers which are visible from the street, good lighting, and an accessible peep hole that works for various heights.
  6. Ramp access: It’s easy to incorporate a ramp access to a home in an attractive manner with the right design. If you are considering adding or remodeling your front porch or entryway, or want to remove short, internal steps, talk to your designer about how to incorporate a ramp access while keeping an attractive design.
  7. More lighting: most homes aren’t constructed with enough lighting. Although it’s easy to add lamps, it’s considered safer to eliminate these potential tripping hazards by adding integrated lighting. Better lighting means safer working conditions, especially in high task areas such as the kitchen, bathroom and laundry room.
  8. Install integrated night lights: Being able to navigate your home in the middle of the night is important and there are some great new products on the market that make this easy.some new cover plates, that fit over the outlets, have integrated lights that turn on with light sensors.
  9. Hand held shower faucets: installing a hand-held shower faucet in the shower or tub makes bathing little ones, and those with mobility issues, much easier. Many faucets can also be installed on a heigh adjustable rod. It’s also great for when you have to clean the shower or tub!
  10. Install a beveled, no-step threshold: the threshold is the raised area on the floor within a door way (or between two types of flooring) and marks a transition area. Installing a beveled, no-step threshold makes for easier, less hazardous pathways within the home for those with mobility issues.
  11. Grip bars or rails: If you are remodeling a bathroom it’s a wise idea to install grip rails (or grab bars). Grab bars should be designed to hold at least 250 pounds and are usually attached to the walls near the toilet and inside the shower or bath. These bars can make showering and bathing easier and safer, even for children who may rely upon them for greater balance. If you don’t want grip rails at this time, some homeowners choose to reinforce the walls now in order to make installing them later much easier.
  12. Non-slip tile: throw rugs may feel soft on your feet but did you know they can also be a tripping hazard? If you are remodeling your bathroom you can choose non-slip flooring tile (or textured tile) that is attractive but not slippery.
  13. Easy to reach drawers: If you are remodeling your kitchen, pantry, closet or bathroom it’s a smart idea to install pull-out drawers instead of standard shelving. Pull-down shelving for upper cabinets (or appliance lifts like the one shown in the above image) is also a wise idea and will eliminate the need for a step stool or awkward lifting.
  14. Multiple height countertops: in the kitchen, it’s a good idea to have multiple height work surfaces. This can be useful for those who do a lot of cooking or baking (baking counters are generally a bit lower than standard counters) but can also be perfect for in-kitchen desks, working while seated, or for multiple age groups working in the kitchen.
  15. Water dispenser at stove: often found in high-end kitchen remodels, this spigot is located at the stove and allows the user to fill up a heavy pot of water without carrying it from the sink to the stove.
  16. Higher electrical outlets: Most outlets are located about 12″ off the floor, but this is too low when you are seated in a wheelchair or have mobility issues. If you need to add new outlets to your home, consider installing them 18″ – 24″ off of the ground.
  17. Lower wall switches or thermostats: Consider lowering the height of important wall functions like light switches, thermostats, or alarm systems. 36″-44″ above the ground is ideal for most people to reach and use.
  18. Install a backup generator: A backup generator can come in handy whenever power is lost to the home. Most of the time we think simply of our comfort whenever we lose power due to storms or windy weather. However, a backup generator can be a lifesaver if you or someone in your family relies upon refrigerated medications or electronic monitoring. Other life-saving equipment such as an oxygen concentrator, air conditioning or heating may be imperative too, and a generator can make sure that these features are still usable.

Lifelong Housing Certification

Did you know that your home can become certified as a Lifelong Home? The Lifelong Housing Certification Program rates individual homes as to their level of accessibility and divides the home among three categories:

Level 1: Visitable
The home includes basic accessibility and/or adaptability of architectural features on the ground floor and is “visitable” for guests with disabilities. It has a wheelchair-accessible entrance, plus entertainment area, hall and a bathroom. Other examples of basic features include door handles and faucets that are lever-style and don’t require grasping.

Level 2: Fully Accessible
The ground floor of the home is fully accessible, including all Level 1 features plus an accessible bedroom and kitchen, parking area and entrance. Examples of additional features include raised toilet and appliances; grab bars in bathroom, etc.

Level 3: Enhanced Accessibility  
The home includes Levels 1 & 2 features and has been customized for specific accessibility needs (for example, a ceiling track for transfer or electronic care monitoring). Specific features will be noted on the certificate and available from the seller or listing agent.

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