Actionable Ideas for Universal Design

Old-school contractors like me have had a lot of new-fangled ideas coming at them the past 10 years. These new design approaches challenge us to re-think the way we have always done things and how we advise our clients. No one really likes change so we tend to push back. After all, in our heads we are experts. We have experience designing, specifying and executing the construction of our renovation ideas. This article will encourage you to embrace some new ideas.

Don’t panic. There is good news for remodelers. The first good thing to know is that, because of the needs of your clients, you are already doing a lot of these things right, and have been for years. For example, you probably already know that installing wider doorways, attractive grab bars and increased lighting for clients who are seniors really works for them. That’s good aging-in-place and universal design. You have undoubtedly been putting in energy-efficient air-conditioning systems and double-pane windows in every job for years before your new construction counterparts did so. These are considered green building ideas.

Universal design simply means inclusive design – thoughtfully filling homes with features that provide comfort and convenience, regardless of age, stature or ability. Although UD certainly has a lot of overlap with aging-in-place design, there are some notable differences.

Here is an example of the difference between aging-in-place and UD. Let’s say you are building a bath sink vanity. If you built it with an open knee space under the sink with clearance for a wheelchair user, that would be a typical aging-in-place element. However, if you added a removable cabinet front that could convert it easily to a typical sink base with a floor and cabinet doors, that would be a universal design element because it could easily be converted to fit a variety of user’s needs.

Aging-in-place design tends to focus more on the special needs of an older or special needs client. It usually has more accessible features, but there are many overlapping ideas. For example, installing 1/2-in. pressure-treated plywood on the walls of the shower or tub surround walls people can add grab bars or seats wherever they want, is both an aging in place and UD idea. So are most of the adaptive design ideas, like stacking closets for a future elevator.

Both of these disciplines are currently being rebranded into the newest terminology BLD, or Better Living Design. This new effort is being championed by industry experts such as Bill Owens, CAPS, CGR, CGP, and Richard Duncan, Executive Director at RL Mace Universal Design Institute, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and the AARP. The AARP, in fact, created the Better Living Design Institute in (BLDI) 2009.

The BLDI has some ideals that could significantly change both new construction and remodeling in this country. For example, the institute plans to certify new and remodeled homes that meet the new standards – like an Energy Star or LEED home. They will enlist participation of all major home products manufacturers in adapting designs of products/fixtures. They plan to mount a concerted push to educate consumers, builders and manufacturers to build this way as the default, not the exception. Those of us who would love to see all future homes -- especially production homes -- built to include these smart design features welcome this effort.

Here are some specific UD ideas you should consider incorporating in your projects:

Kitchen and Laundry Room Ideas

  1. Include as much storage space as you can between 24 and 46 in., which is the range that is comfortable for a standing or seated user.
  2. Everywhere you can, put full-extension, soft-close drawers and pull-out storage. By pull-out storage I mean pull-out pantries, spice or utensil-racks, not pull-out drawers/shelves behind cabinet doors. Those require two operations to open and close, which is inefficient. You can put so much more stuff in real drawers than cabinets.
  3. Create one or more knee spaces in lower cabinets. Fill that space with a roll-under island with shelving on board. These provide a place for a seated user to work, and island making additional work space, and also provide movable, always-needed low storage.
  4. Consider putting in a side-opening oven instead of traditional bottom-hinged one.
  5. Under the oven(s), install a pull-out shelf, with a tile or stone surface. This will provide a convenient and safe landing space for hot dishes.
  6. Design the drawers to be deep enough to store dishes and other heavy kitchen objects low.
  7. Add more drawer compartments to organize spices, small appliances, cookware and cooking implements. Plate stackers, for example, not only organize plates of different sizes, they make it easy to lift a stack of plates easily from that drawer to the countertop without them sliding off each other.
  8. Raise dishwashers appearing at the end of run of cabinets 10 to 12 in. above the finished floor and install a pot drawer underneath.
  9. Build cabinets with taller toe-kicks and install drawers in the toe kick area to maximize storage.
  10. Install more LED lighting – retrofit existing can lights with LED kits, install new LED cans, use LED under-cabinet and pendant lights. My clients love the fact that they are much cooler in the kitchen than regular cans, very energy efficient and are virtually maintenance free. I have started putting LED-compatible dimmers on my under-cabinet lights, which my clients love. They can dim the lights over the counter to an inviting mood level for parties, or even as night lights. LED recessed lights on a high or vaulted ceiling may be more expensive initially, but it is well worth it, to never have to worry changing those high bulbs again. 
  11. Install microwaves just under counter-height on a shelf built for that purpose, or as a drawer microwave. Stop installing microwave-vent hood combo appliances that require hot dishes be lowered from above.
  12. Eliminate outlets on the kitchen backsplash and install GFI protected, strategically placed, angled plug strips that offer many outlets anywhere they might be needed. Depending on your family’s needs, these could be placed at the top of the backsplash or just under the leading edge of a countertop installed with more overhang than usual. Check local code requirements. Switches usually placed on the backsplash can be located on the bottom of the upper cabinets or on sides of the base cabinets. 
  13. Consider changing from high-polish granite finished to a honed or matte finish. It produces a lot less glare, especially from under-cabinet lighting.
  14. If heavy portable appliances are used, install a spring-loaded appliance lift that easily raises it to a good working height with no back strain.
  15. If your client’s budget allows, install a motorized, varying height sink and some pull-down shelves in the upper cabinets.
  16. In the laundry, install front-loading machines up on 12-in. platforms. Install full extension drawers in the platforms.
  17. Install a laundry sink with a removable cover that provides more folding space – often missing in small utility rooms. The faucet should be a tall one with lever handles and a spray hose, just like the kitchen. We often forget to do a spray hose here, but it can be very handy.
  18. If you are adding on or building new laundry space, create more floor space than you normally would in the laundry. Install more storage cabinetry within easy reach (24 to 48 in.) with deep full extension drawers.

Bathroom Ideas

  1. Convert tubs to curb-less, walk in showers. Yes, you can do it with a 5-ft. tub.
  2. Locate the shower valves near the entry point, not under the shower head. 
  3. Where your client steps into a tub or shower, install at least one nice looking vertical grab bar.
  4. Always add a handheld shower on a 6-ft. in addition to your main shower head. These are great for washing the dog, cleaning the shower, rinsing off dirty kids and dealing with muddy camping gear.
  5. Add a trickle control device at the base of your handheld shower handle to let your client control the water flow more easily. 
  6. Make sure your shower and tub valves not only have a temperature and pressure balancing device in them, but also an anti-scald device. This is an adjusting screw behind the plate that allows you to set the maximum temperature to be sure no one ever gets scalded. Set that temperature at 114 F or less.
  7. Plan cabinets for varying height sinks. Whether you are installing one long vanity or separate furniture pieces, have one sink at 36 in. and the other lower – perhaps around 30 in. 
  8. If you client has one or more dedicated tub-users, consider a walk-in jetted or soaking tub. These are not just for the aged and infirm. These allow your client-user to relax and soak submerged up to their necks, which is hard to do in a traditional tub. 
  9. Wet areas: Always install shampoo niches and shower benches. You are probably doing this anyway because your clients demand it, but people of all ages love to have a bench for sitting and leg shaving. If it’s a tiny shower, install a triangular corner bench. These can be done using an aluminum frame you tile over or a removable teak seat approach on aluminum legs or stone matching the countertop. Most hand-held shower hoses do not reach the bench, which is usually on the wall opposite the shower controls. Install separate plumbing for the handheld, both the valve and hose mount, within easy reach of the bench.
  10. More lighting. LED wall lights are way cooler than halogen or xenon lights and there are more and more choices at your lighting store every month. Add a moisture-proof recessed light over that tub or shower every time.

More Ideas

  1. Lower light switches and thermostats to 48 in. (to the center of the j-box). This will make them easier to use for everyone, including small children. Raise outlets to 15 in. above the finished floor.
  2. Create at least one no-step entry into the house. If you can make two, that is even better for fire safety reasons. 
  3. If your client has pets, consider building a pet feeding station into lower cabinetry, a concealed litter box area for cats and separate storage for pet foods. If there is a large dog in the family, install a powered pet door for convenience and security. It can only be opened by the dog approaching with a special coded collar.
  4. Discuss the advantages of installing wireless lighting control systems and camera systems for security and convenience.
  5. Lever handles on all door locks – interior and exterior. Also lever handles on all plumbing fixtures.
  6. If you see a 24-in.-wide bathroom or closet door in a client’s home, widen it to 32 in. or 34 in., if possible. This often means changing the swing or converting it to a pocket door.
  7. If budget allows, add small laundry machines in the master bedroom, and a perhaps a kitchenette, especially if the bedroom is upstairs.
  8. Bring in more natural daylighting. An easy way to bring in full-spectrum daylight without having to worry about leaks is by installing more tubular skylights and roof window-type skylights. These greatly reduce the need for lights being turned on during the day and don’t produce a lot of heat gain like traditional skylights. Consider installing them in places where more light is needed in smaller spaces, such as bathrooms, laundry rooms and closets.

Don’t be afraid of these new approaches coming down the pike. Embrace them and become a better builder/remodeler.

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