The words dream house may conjure up fantasy amenities and custom trims. But smart homeowners also imagine a home they can live in forever — with a young family, through busy midlife, and with many of the common physical limitations that getting older can bring, from arthritis to needing a wheelchair.
Universal design (UD) is the design of products and environments that are usable by most people, regardless of their level of ability or disability, and at little or no extra cost. From entryways to kitchens and bathrooms to bedrooms, they often increase the value of a home. UD brings together the principles of accessible design (meeting standards for handicapped access, using “adaptable” design, meaning “normal”-looking design that can be revised later for disabled use), ergonomic design (allowing people and things to interact most effectively and safely), and green design (environmentally friendly spaces). UD is sometimes also called “lifespan design.”
These seven principles, set out by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, a national resource and technical assistance center, help inform useful design for all ages and stages of life:
1. Design that’s equally appealing to all users
What it means: Wherever possible, universal design creates spaces that can be used by everyone equally and that are appealing to all. UD doesn’t stigmatize any one group of users — like those obvious wheelchair ramps tacked onto the fronts of older homes, for example.
2. Flexible use
What it means: Good UD accommodates a wide range of preferences and abilities. This means it considers both lefties and righties, and those who move at different paces. It often allows for a variety of usages, as well.
3. Simple and intuitive use
What it means: UD makes things easy to figure out, regardless of cognitive functioning, language, literacy, experience or know-how. Unnecessary complexity is out.
4. Presents essential information clearly
What it means: Any information that needs to be conveyed to the user is done using a variety of methods (sensory, pictorial, tactile) so even someone with limitations can manage it.
5. Allows for user errors
What it means: UD tries to imagine the potential problems and then eliminates them or isolates or shields the user from them. The design itself anticipates the dangers and discourages unconscious unsafe use.
6. Requires low physical effort
What it means: Things should be easy to use: efficient, comfortable, and requiring minimal effort. You shouldn’t have to contort yourself or use a lot of physical force.
7. Appropriate size and space for use, regardless of body size or mobility
What it means: No matter what your body size, posture, or level of functioning, you should be able to approach, reach, and manipulate objects easily. There should also be sufficient space for someone who needs to use adaptive devices, such as wheelchairs or walkers.
By Paula Spencer Scott, Caring.com senior editor