Universal Design for the Home Makes Living Easy

If you’ve been hearing about Universal Design, you might be wondering exactly what it is. It is a broad range of ideas intended to produce buildings and products that are easily accessible to all ages, but especially the elderly, with or without disabilities. Universal Design for the home makes life easier for everyone, regardless of capability or age. Below are several changes to your home that you can make to achieve this goal.

Universal Design Principles

At the Center for Universal Design (CUD), a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers established seven principles of Universal Design (UD) to provide guidance in the design of products and environments. Following are the CUD principles of UD:

  •  Equitable use
  • Flexibility in Use
  •  Simple and intuitive
  • Perceptible information
  • Tolerance for error
  • Low physical effort
  • Size and space for approach and use


Universal Design is not about making a home compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which would require more specialized design features and hardware. Those features could be part of the design.  However, ADA compliance is not required. Yet, whether young or old, most of us, or our friends and family, could benefit by living in a home that would accommodate a wider spectrum of physical conditions in terms of comfort and accessibility at some point in our life – without the institutional look.

Universal Design for All, Not Just For the Aging or Impaired


If you absolutely love your home and do not plan on leaving it, then you might consider making it more user-friendly. If your Mom and Dad don’t quite get around like they used to, Universal Design for the home might make them feel more comfortable: Maybe you have friends or family who can no longer do the things they used to do; maybe they have children with special-needs; or maybe you have a temporary need for a wheelchair.

The greatest thing about Universal Design, is that many of the changes are subtle and look like you planned them just to improve the look of your home. Though many people are opting to fully remodel their homes, there are several things that you can do when it comes to your house or your décor without major remodeling. Many are simpler than you may think. There are a growing number of stylish home decor products on the market today that are targeted to the aging boomer – but appealing to any age. Below are some things to consider when modifying or building a new home to be more accommodating and accessible to everyone.

Design Changes For an Easier Today & Tomorrow


• Change Out the Doorknobs to Lever Handles. Believe it or not, changing your doorknobs to lever-style handles can actually increase the value of your home. Not only are they easier to open and more functional than traditional knobs, they look fantastic! It’s easy to do on your own and there are a wide variety of beautiful styles to choose from.

• Wider Doorways and Hallways for Wheelchairs. Doorways need to be at least 32″ for a wheelchair that rolls straight through a door. If the doorway is in a hallway or confined space and requires a turn to enter, doorways need to be at least 36″ wide. The standard minimum hallway width is 36″ – and it will accommodate a wheelchair, but not very well. Also, that width is tight for anyone. Consider making hallways 48″, or so, in width.

• Zero-Step Door Entryways. Typical exterior doors have a 2″ – 4″ step in the floor height from the outside to the inside. To make this transition easier, the step needs to be removed or minimized. There are commercially available “threshold ramps” that can be added to an existing step to smooth-out the transition if needed. Also, the entrance area needs to have a 5-foot wide clearance area in front of the door to allow passage of wheelchairs and walkers.


• Low Profile Thresholds. A threshold is a metal or wood plate on the floor that is used to seal the door closed. The height of these vary. Choose low-profile thresholds so that there is less of a bump for wheelchairs or impediment to walk through the door.

Other Issues to Consider:

• Non-skid floors
• Good acoustics
• Adjustable storage
• Low-maintenance finishes
• Higher seat heights for furniture

Kitchens for All Ages


Photo Source:  Center for Real Life Kitchen Design

The number of options available for kitchens today is almost limitless. However, Universal Design in the kitchen does not means you need to include all the bells and whistles – but, at least some of the basics. Kitchens can get very expensive, very fast.

• Include Various Counter Heights. The standard counter height is 36″ – and is good for most people. If you are tall, you may want to make the island, or other counter area, higher. Consider having some counter heights lower so that someone could sit in a standard chair or wheelchair while preparing food. If appropriately located, the dining table could be used for this also.

Add pull-out drawers to the kitchen cabinets. Handicapped, or not – young or old – everyone loves pull-out drawers or cabinets with slide-out trays. They requires less visual and physical effort to access pots, pans, dishes, and food.


• Change the drawer pulls.
In your kitchen, or anywhere you see fit for an upgrade, get rid of the drawer pulls and cabinet knobs that that are round or small as these can be tough to grab for anyone. Replace them with drawer pulls that are u-shaped or D-pulls. Again, the options for design here are endless, from color to texture. Besides, those old kitchen knobs are probably ready to take a rest.

• Change all faucets in sinks and tubs to single lever type. This is easier for everyone – just one lever to control the temperature and the rate of water flow. And – with a touch faucet, you only need to touch the arm, not the lever to activate – easy and convenient.


• Consider below the counter, drawer style refrigerators. This feature is probably more important to someone in a wheelchair. Besides being easily accessible – this feature is a stylish upgrade and it can reduce energy usage since only a small amount of cool air is lost when opened.

Bathrooms for All Ages


Image Source: Kohler

Bathrooms are one of the most popular areas for renovation. That’s the first place people begin to notice the loss of independence, or difficulty with bathing, self-care, toileting, and grooming. Re-designs may involve a tub and installing a walk-in or roll-in shower, or handheld shower, with grab bars in the right place and at the right height for that person. UDLL.com

• No steps, curbs, or obstructions to a shower. In the image below there is no shower door or curtain which allows easy assess. The slight depression in the floor directs water flow to the drain. There is the option to use an adjustable shower head – hand-held or fixed. The grab bars blend in well with the other hardware. The ceiling light over the shower provides additional lighting where it is needed.


Add pull-out drawers to the cabinets in the bathroom. Anyone who has ever had to search for items stuck in the back of the cabinet would appreciate this. However, this is especially important for someone that has limited vision or mobility issues.


• Add a Stool or Seat in the Shower. Whether young or old, a portable or attached seat in the shower is a welcome feature if you want to shave your legs or are not able to stand for long periods of time.


• Install grab bars on bathtub and shower walls and near toilet. There are many styles, colors, and shapes of grab-bars on the market today. The grab bar helps in the transition from a seated to a standing position or to provide stability. As the image below shows, one of the ways to minimize the look of the grab bars is to have a stunning looking bathroom to distract the eye.


• Have at least one elongated style toilet that is 16″ – 19″ tall in height. Decades ago, all toilets for the home had a round seat and were the same height. Today, there are two basic shape choices (round and elongated) and several height choices; the standard 14.5″ height to bowl rim or the 16″ height to bowl rim. Although not required for private residences, for those in a wheelchair, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifies a height of 17″ -19″.

A taller and elongated toilet seat is typically more comfortable for medium to large size adults and the elderly because it is easier to change from the sitting to the standing position. Of course, sit on toilet before you purchase to make sure the height is right for you.


• Install one full bathroom with at least a 5’ diameter wheelchair turning space. Keep your options open. If you are renovating or building new, consider making at least one of the bathrooms handicap accessible in terms of the size requirements. Later, if you want to add more handicap features you can.


• Locate a full bathroom on the first floor. If your home has 2 floors, have a bathroom on the first floor. Also, consider placing the Master Bedroom on the lower floor also – or some other room, such as an office, that could later be converted to a bedroom, if needed.

Enhanced Lighting with Universal Design In Mind


As we age, our vision becomes more sensitive to glare – the concentration of bright light. To see well, our eyes require a higher degree of contrast and greater amounts of illumination. There are many ways to create a lighting environment that is attractive and accommodating for all. According to the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), features of good lighting design as we age include the following: (ies.org)

1) abundant ambient (general) lighting,
2) greater levels of lighting,
3) glare-free lighting,
4) lighting that enhances ability to see color,
5) fixtures that do not hum or flicker,
6) enhanced aesthetic appearance [added by author].

Use Multiple Sources of Light. Whether for the visually impaired or not, lighting and interior designers always recommend utilizing multiple sources of lighting. This is especially important for the visually impaired or the elderly. It not only makes the interior look significantly better, but it is also better in terms of enhancing the ability to see. Mix up your lighting with various sources of lighting: day-lighting from windows and skylights, cove lighting, table lamps, desk lamps, floor lamps, chandeliers, and such. For enhanced lighting, you want the ambient, or general lighting, to be scattered around the room and not concentrated.

universal-design-lighting-dining (1)

The dining room above has several good features. The pendant light provides both direct and indirect lighting: light is directed toward the ceiling, to the surface below, and around the perimeter. There are no exposed bulbs. The windows and the sconces provide additional ambient light around the space. The hurricane lamps provide a small amount of accent lighting to the dining table. The window coverings have woven shades that could be drawn to reduce glare, if needed. However, it would be better in terms of Enhanced Lighting Design if the walls were a lighter color and the sconces gave off more light.

Wall and Furniture Colors. Light colors reflect light and dark colors absorb light. Use primarily light colors for the walls and furniture and limit dark colors to trims and accents to maximize the brightness of a room. The room below is a great example in terms of providing good ambient light from day-lighting, using multiple sources of lighting, and using light colored walls and furniture. However, for a person with aging vision – sheers or woven shades should be available to diffuse the light and reduce glare from the windows.


• Replace your light switches with Rocker Style Switches. By replacing your old toggle style light switch with rocker-style switches, you not only make things easier for everyone (ever try to turn on a tiny toggle when your hands are full?), you can make things look more modern.

• Add time or motion activated night lights in bathrooms and the pathway leading from bedrooms to bathrooms. These could be the built- in type fixtures or the plug-in socket type fixture. They automatically turn on when it is dark or at a pre-set time. This makes it easy to find the bathroom at night without having to turn on the bright lights.

• Add Multiple Types of Exterior Lights. Use a variety of lighting fixtures for the walls, ceilings, walkways, and yard. In many areas it would be desirable to use fixtures with a motion or time sensor: Allows you and your visitors to easily navigate to the entrance. Not to mention, if lighting is used to accent your landscaping, it can create an attractive design feature for you to enjoy at night. Last, but not least, exterior lighting can be a safety feature in terms of deterring crime.


Universal Design for the Home Overview

There are numerous ways to make a more more adaptive as we age or become physically limited in some way. Below is a recap of various changes to consider for your home:


  • Change out the doorknobs to lever handles
  • Wider doorways and hallways for wheelchairs and walkers
  • Zero-step door entryways, Low profile thresholds
  • Non-skid floors
  • Good acoustics
  • Adjustable storage
  • Low-maintenance finishes
  • Use elevated, front loading washer and dryer
  • Increase seat heights for furniture


    • Locate stove controls in the front
    • Install closets doors at least 36” wide
    • Include various counter heights
    • Install pull-out drawers to the kitchen cabinets
    • Change the drawer pulls to D-type pulls
    • Change all faucets in sinks and tubs to single lever type
    • Consider below the counter, drawer style refrigerators


  • No steps, curbs, or obstructions to a shower
  • Add pull-out drawers to the cabinets in the bathroom
  • Add a stool or seat in the shower
  • Install grab bars on bathtub and shower walls and near toilet
  • Have at least one elongated style toilet that is 16″ – 19″ tall in height
  • Install one full bathroom with wheelchair turning space
  • Locate a full bathroom on the first floor

Lighting and Electrical

  • Use multiple sources of ambient and task lighting: daylight, table lamps, floor lamps, chandeliers, etc.
  • Use light colors for walls and furniture
  • Install sheers or woven shades to reduce glare
  • Replace your toggle light switches with rocker style switches
  • Add time or motion activated night lights in and leading to bathrooms
  • Add multiple types of exterior lights for the walls, ceilings, walkways, and yard
  • Add more electrical outlets, 6” lower
  • Use LED, fluorescent, or halogen bulbs, install dimmers where appropriate

Universal Design allows our homes to age with us and respond to our physical needs as they arise. People are living longer these days – and most people would prefer to stay in their homes and be independent. Or sometimes, due to an accident or illness, our physical needs change. Universal Design for the home works for all ages – and it can look good too.

Raquel Mendoza Blogger

guest-authorLet us help you find your best style!

Fine Home Lighting and Fine Home Lamps are committed to providing customers with fine quality home accessories at the best possible prices along with providing knowledgeable and responsive customer service.

About Fine Home Lighting and Fine Home Lamps

FineHomeLamps.com has been in operation since early 2009. We carry over 10,000 hand-selected home accessories such as table lampsfloor lampschandeliers, including wall mirrors, wall clocks. and wall art. We continually expand our inventory in order to provide additional choices for our customers.


Share this post