Universal Design Finally Gets its Due

It doesn’t seem like so long ago when kitchens revolved around a single work triangle, where Mom prepared meals for her husband and 2.5 kids. But as family configurations changed and kitchens grew larger, the work triangle gave way to multiple kitchen “work zones.” Large, boxy refrigerators were complemented or even replaced by flexible point-of-use refrigeration, and multiple, flexibly designed appliances became the norm for outfitting the ultimate “trophy kitchen.”

Likewise, yesterday’s baths were all about big, bigger and biggest – super-sized spaces, jetted tubs large enough to go swimming in, super showers with more bells and whistles than your average car.

Then came the greening of the kitchen and bath. Efficiencies of space and energy became all the rage, while water conservation inspired smaller fixtures, re-engineered to provide the full-sensory water experience, only using less square footage and water.

Looking over the changes in the kitchen and bath industry in the past 10 years, or even the past two years, one thing is clear: Design is fluid. Indeed, the creative nature of the field almost demands that today’s trends will be ever-changing and evolving, as consumers and design professionals continue to pursue “the next big thing.”

So what is the “next big thing?” While it’s been widely debated, more and more people are betting on Universal Design as the “green” of the future.

You can see evidence of this in how many kitchen and bath designers are now getting their Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS) certifications, or how the National Association of the Remodeling Industry recently announced a new Universal Design Certified Remodeler designation.

This trend was also illustrated by many of the products on display at this year’s K/BIS, where beautiful, safe and accessible tub and shower options were seen in abundance. Mary Jo Peterson looks at some of these products in her “Planning and Design” column this month.

But it’s not just about Baby Boomers getting older. It’s not only that people are finally beginning to accept that Universal Design isn’t just about designing for the elderly and the physically challenged. It’s not even just that there’s been a fundamental shift in the consumer mind set that has today’s homeowners prioritizing substance over flash (though this is certainly a factor).

Mostly, though, it’s that personalized design is finally coming into its own. As Mick De Giulio explains, “People are an amalgam of so many different elements: culture and nationality, family history and cooking habits” (see "Designer Explores Changing World of Kitchens").

Indeed, what’s evolving now, De Giulio says, is “a movement toward more personalized spaces – in other words, a need to create [spaces] for people, individually, rather than formula-driven, out-of-the-catalog type designs.”

Good design takes this into account. Great design not only takes this into account, it creates spaces where the unique elements of the individual are inextricably interwoven into the design, so that the design is a true, living reflection of the people who live in the space.

And that’s about as universal as it gets.

Of course some design professionals still believe Universal Design isn’t sexy enough or flashy enough to ever be more than a fringe trend. But honestly, are VOCs sexy? Are low-flow toilets and showerheads flashy? Green isn’t hot because it’s sexy; it’s hot because it’s a value-driven trend that provides real benefits that resonate with today’s consumers.

The same can be said for Universal Design. So as you look toward the future, be careful not to underestimate the power of – and universal need for – beautiful, safe and substance-driven products that help to personalized spaces for the individuals who inhabit them.