Creating Spaces to Accommodate Everyone

A growing number of families live in multi-generational homes. Combined with an increased desire by more people wanting to live in their own homes longer, Universal Design – including its subset, aging in place – is becoming more common. Creating kitchen or bath spaces that can accommodate wheelchairs, walkers and canes becomes more important in these settings.

However, one doesn’t need to be physically challenged or even in their senior years to appreciate the benefits that Universal Design offers.

“Universal Design is really about creating spaces that everyone can use, regardless of age or circumstance, without compromising aesthetics,” says Anne-Marie Brunet, interior designer, CKD, CBD, Sheridan Interiors, in Ottawa, Canada.

“It promotes convenience, health and well-being, safety, flexibility and adaptability, while improving human performance and social participation,” adds Barb Mueller, Allied ASID, AKBD, CAPS, owner, Designs Anew Houston, in Houston, TX. “It’s important that it’s easy to understand and is comfortable, without discriminating against anyone who might have different abilities.”

Shawn McCune, CKD, owner, Kitchen Design Gallery, in Lenexa, KS, notes that the name says it all. “It’s universal,” he says. “It’s about accessibility for everybody…no matter a person’s size or limitation.”

Transitions Remodeling, in Farmington, MI, has really taken the concept to heart by including an occupational therapist on its team. “Carol [Green] helps our designers, carpenters and installers better understand Universal Design concepts and how to incorporate them into residential designs where, unlike ADA requirements, there are no real codes,” says Tim Saling, partner. “She really adds a lot of credibility to our company and to our team.”


Promoting Safety

With today’s expanded product availability and current design trends toward cleaner spaces, it’s easier than ever to mainstream Universal Design into kitchens and baths, making them look beautiful at the same time. “Many elements aren’t noticeable unless you look for them,” says Mueller. “That’s the beauty of Universal Design…it disappears into the design.”

In the bath, products such as grab bars are becoming nearly standard for everyone. At the very least, designers frequently add blocking so bars can easily be added at a later date. No longer institutional-looking, today’s grab bars are often beautiful, pulling double-duty as towel bars, toilet paper holders and shelves. “I’ve discovered a company that makes really beautiful products that belie their intended use,” says Brunet.

Curbless showers are also finding their way into more baths, from both style and ease of use perspectives. “I think everyone should have one because it just makes sense,” says Mueller. “We encourage a curbless shower almost all the time. It’s certainly easier if someone is in a wheelchair, but it’s also the style people are looking for.”

Barb Baker, partner, CAPS, Transitions Remodeling, indicates that her firm recommends them for most baths as well. “Once people understand the option, it’s almost a no-brainer,” she says, noting that the curbfree shower in the showroom gets a lot of attention for its beauty and function.

Both grab bars and curbless showers promote safety for everyone. “A vertical grab bar should be installed in every bathing unit,” says Saling. “It’s human nature that if a grab bar is available, people will use it. If everyone included one in their designs, it would make such a difference in safety.”

Trip hazards are very high in a bathroom as well, notes Mueller. “People can trip over a threshold, no matter their age or circumstance,” she says.

McCune agrees. “Anyone standing on one foot while negotiating the other over a 4" to 6" curb on a wet surface can fall…it doesn’t matter who you are,” he states.

To further enhance safety and convenience in the bath, McCune and Mueller often include a handheld shower because “at any moment, any of us could need one.”

Mueller likes to further convenience and safety by adding a bench because “everyone likes to sit,” she says.

Brunet frequently adds shower rails so the showerhead can slide up and down based on the height of the user. Comfort-height toilets are another popular element that ease use for everyone.


In the Kitchen

Universal Design is being mainstreamed into the kitchen as well. Tables attached to islands provide easy access to seating so everyone, including grandparents and children, can sit together. Tall cabinets as opposed to walk-in pantries with deep shelves enhance usability, and cabinetry equipped with roll-out and pull-out shelves and drawers make content retrieval easy…again, for everyone.

“I love putting in drawers instead of cabinets with doors,” says Mueller. “People don’t have to get on their hands and knees to get something out of the back of the cabinet.”

Brunet also prefers drawers, adding ease of cleaning to the list of benefits. “And if you have doors, pull-outs are essential,” she says.

Aftermarket manufacturers are also offering cabinet options, such as pull-down shelves, that can make access easier. “These are one of my favorite Universal Design features,” says Carol Green, occupational therapist, Transitions Remodeling. “You can grab the bottom of the shelf to pull the contents down and out of the cabinet.”

Brunet is having a lot of conversations with her clients about appliance placement, especially when it comes to microwaves. “I usually place them just underneath the countertop,” she says, noting she oftentimes lowers wall ovens to make them more accessible as well.

McCune and the team at Transitions Remodeling have installed cooktops that raise and lower based on need. “With the push of a button, the cooktop can raise and lower to accommodate a short person, a tall person or someone who just wants to see what is inside a stock pot on the cooktop,” says Saling.


The Extras

Regardless of whether it’s a kitchen or a bath, many designers KBDN spoke with give special attention to lighting selection and placement as it relates to Universal Design.

“Lighting has an immediate impact and it’s imperative to have the right amount of light with the right kind of light in the right spot for the space to function properly and for the person working there to be safe,” says Brunet. “I like to layer lighting according to my mantra of up, down and all around. Up lighting is for stairs or wall sconces. Down lighting is task lighting, such as undercabinet lighting or pendants. All around lighting is general lighting.”

Brunet also pays attention to bulbs, specifying those with a coating to reduce glare.

Sometimes it isn’t necessarily the big things that offer the most convenience. “It isn’t so much that something is Universal Design,” says Green. “It’s that it’s easier to use, and oftentimes is more attractive.”

Touch faucets automatically start and stop water flow without turning anything. Lever handles on doors and faucets are easier to operate than knobs and pulls. All of these can be beautiful, and oftentimes are not any more expensive. “I’m a designer who loves crystal knobs,” says McCune. “At the same time, they aren’t always logical.”

Brunet changes the location of receptacles, moving them to more convenient places such as on the front or to the side of a cabinet. “In a kitchen, you don’t have to lean over a hot cooktop or open range,” she says. Raising wall receptacles to 18" to 20" off the floor is another way Brunet adds convenience. “You don’t have to bend down as far,” she explains. “Basically, they’re hidden, or closely hidden, behind a piece of furniture, so they aren’t distracting to the room.”

Wider doorways make moving between spaces easier, and McCune likes to totally eliminate barriers and steps for accessing the home.


Added Value

The value of adding Universal Design elements is nearly limitless. “It helps keep people in their homes longer, and helps them through temporary situations,” says McCune. It’s also an attitude. “The longer you can stay in your home, the more purpose you have in life.”

People are becoming more accepting of Universal Design, adds Mueller. “Hopefully in the next 10 years, much of Universal Design will be standard,” she says. “It just makes sense. If you’re looking out for your clients’ best interest, you want to design a space that is beautiful, functional, safe, convenient and good for their health and well being.”

“The value is without a doubt accessibility for everybody, and to provide flexibility and longevity throughout the user’s time in the home,” says Brunet.

Saling notes that Universal Design is about visitors, too. “It’s about trying to include anyone who might enter the space and accommodating their differences,” he says. “If it’s easily accessible, you won’t have someone climbing on a chair trying to reach something. It’s easier living and more accommodating, for everyone, whether they are disabled at some level or not.”