Universal Design: Building Homes for Safety, Comfort and Convenience

The term “universal design” first made its appearance in the architectural interior design scene after architect Ronald L. Mace collaborated with the dynamic forces of architecture to create universal accessibility as early as the 1970’s.  First a specialty associated with the elderly to make the architectural design of homes safe and easy to get around in, the concept now caters to a variety of needs.  Universal design practiced by OMNIA Group Architects creates accessibility beyond The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).


What is universal design? And is it something you should consider for your home? According to AARP, “A home with universal design features is a home that fits everyone — even those who face special physical challenges.” 


Originally called “barrier-free” homes, universal design homes are fast becoming popular because they are attractive — people with disabilities no longer feel they are compromising aesthetics for practicality. These homes are especially accommodating for all ages.


Over the years, we have seen a trend toward “aging in place,” wherein seniors opt to stay in their home.  According to research by AARP, nearly 90 percent of seniors prefer to age in their home versus a senior facility. Multi-generational households are also on the rise. As of 2010, 4.4 million U.S. homes held three generations or more under one roof, a 15 percent increase from 3.8 million households two years earlier, according to the latest data from the Census Bureau.  OMNIA Group Architects partner, Gene Grimaldi, personally lives in his custom-designed, geo-thermal powered home that accommodates his parents and his father in law, who recently passed away.  


Universal design serves our senior population well, yet everyone can use universal design — whether young, old, healthy, ill or disabled — because it makes for an attractive, functional and spacious home. Ideally, universal design is one-story living, with barrier-free places to eat, use the bathroom and sleep on one level, making it easy to get around, whether or not in a wheelchair. For those already in a home, universal design features can easily be incorporated.


They include:


Entry, Doorways, Hallways And Stairwells

  • No-step entry either through the front, back, or garage door lets everyone, including those in a wheelchair, enter the home easily and safely.
  • In doorways, 32-36 inch-wide frames allow side-by-side walking or for someone on crutches or in a wheelchair to come through. It also makes it easy to move bulky furniture in and out of the house. Hallways should be 36-42 inches wide. 
  • Thresholds flush with the floor make it easy for a wheelchair to get through a doorway. They also keep others from tripping. Handles on both sides of staircases also allow for better balance. 
  • Extra floor space gives people in wheelchairs more space to turn, and gives your home a more spacious feel.

In the Bathroom

  • A handheld showerhead can be manipulated with one hand without having to reach too far. 
  • Floors and bathtubs with non-slip surfaces, and handrails and grab bars to help everyone stay on their feet.
  • A bath seat and transfer bench makes it easy for anyone to step in and out of the shower. A phone in the bathroom is also a good idea in case of an emergency.
  • Radiant heating on the floor or heated towel bars add another level of comfort if someone in the family is sensitive to temperature changes.

In the Kitchen/Laundry Room

  • Multi-level kitchen countertops with open space underneath allow you to cook work while seated.
  • Raised front-loading clothes washers, dryers, and dishwashers, and side-by-side refrigerators and ovens with controls on the front (and kid-proof safety locks), keep people from having to reach far back to turn something on and off.
  • Easy-access kitchen storage such as adjustable-height cupboards and lazy Susans take the hassle out of food access.

Throughout the Home

  • Lower light switches to 42-48 inches above the floor, thermostats no higher than 48 inches off the floor, and electrical outlets 18-24 inches off the floor, so anyone, even a person in a wheelchair, can reach them easily.
  • Lever door handles and rocker light switches are great for people with poor hand strength. They also come in handy when your arms are full of packages.

In the Living Room

  • Wood tables vs. glass-top tables are safer if a person needs to lean on the table to get up. 
  • Keep lights at eye level and on dimmers. Task lighting is ideal as long as there are no exposed bulbs. 

From structure and space, to furniture and appliances, Universal design goes well beyond barrier-free living. It is about creating an attractive, stylish space that cares for you — whatever your age or ability. Contact OMNIA Group Architects if you need help creating custom-designed, universally accessible new construction, or adaptive spaces or redesign to your existing architecture, to help make your long-term residence comfortable for all ages. 


The OMNIA Group Architects bring talent, experience and exceptional customer service to every residential and commercial project. We call it Creativity Delivered. Our clients — in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and throughout the country – call it the perfect solution to their architectural needs. Our goal is to create home and work environments that make your life easier, more productive and more enjoyable.

This newsletter is yet another variation of Creativity Delivered — keeping you up to date on the latest architectural trends and on our newest projects.