Universal design and accessibility

Creating Inclusive Spaces: Universal Design Principles for Accessible Homes

As Canada’s population ages, many families are looking for ways to comfortably stay in their own homes instead of moving to an assisted living facility or care home. Universal Design is about designing and creating products, systems and stylish living spaces that are usable by everyone regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.

Whether you’re designing an accessible home for yourself or a family member with limited mobility, you’re planning an aging-in-place floor or in-law suite, or completing a multi-generational remodel, living in a suitable home is crucial for comfortable and independent living.

Including universal design features and products in a renovation or custom home build makes sense financially, particularly if the home is finished so attractively that the added features aren’t immediately noticeable, except for their ease of use. Attractively designed, exceptionally livable homes have become a very desirable or essential choice for many when considering a home to buy or rent.

Overthinking anything is useless, and the usefulness and value of any design are dependent on how it will be used. In this article, we will explore what universal design is, essential universal design features and other considerations when designing and building your accessible home.

What is universal design?

Proponents of universal design insist that “universal design is good design, period”. The seven principles of universal design were developed in 1997 at the North Carolina State University by a team of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers, led by Ronald Mace.

“Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptations or specialized design.” – Ron Mace

Universal design principles, as they pertain to remodels and new home construction are:

  1. Equitable use: The home’s design must be useful and marketable to potential homeowners with a wide range of abilities. Whenever possible, the experience should be identical or equivalent for all users, offering the same aesthetic appeal, while avoiding segregation or stigmatizing anyone. All users should enjoy the same level of privacy, security and safety.
  2. Flexibility in use: The design needs to accommodate a wide range of individual preferences and unique abilities, with a choice of methods of use. Any controls should be equivalent for right- or left-handed users and facilitate users of any pace and level of accuracy or precision.
  3. Simple and intuitive use: The method of use should be easy to understand, regardless of the user’s knowledge, experience, language skills or level of concentration. The design avoids unnecessary complexity and is intuitive, and consistent with any user expectations. Any information should be arranged in a manner that is consistent with its importance and it should accommodate a broad range of literacy and language skills.
  4. Perceptible information: The design needs to communicate any essential information to the user, regardless of the user’s sensory abilities or ambient light available. This information should be presented in pictorial, verbal and tactile formats, while providing adequate contrast between the information and its immediate surroundings, with maximum legibility.
  5. Tolerance for error: Universal design minimizes any hazards and adverse consequences that may result from accidental or unintended actions. This involves arranging elements to minimize any hazards and potential errors by isolating and shielding those options while including fail-safe features and making the most used choices the most accessible. Warnings are displayed for any hazards, and unconscious erroneous actions are discouraged by their placement and posted notices.
  6. Low physical effort: Minimizing physical effort, while enhancing efficiency and comfort, is crucial. Neutral, relaxed body positions and reasonable operating forces are key design considerations, while repetitive actions and sustained physical effort are kept to a minimum.
  7. Size and space for approach and use: Careful consideration is given to the appropriate size and space that must be provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use for all users, regardless of body size, posture, or mobility. There must be a clear line of sight, and components need to be comfortable to reach for both seated and standing users. User controls must accommodate variations in hand and grip size while providing sufficient space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.

Essential universal design features

No-step entries: Your home requires at least one step-free entrance. This could be through the front door, back door, side entrance or garage. This no-step entry allows everyone, including anyone using a wheelchair or mobility scooter, to enter the home easily and safely. Non-contact automatic door openers with facial recognition and other SMART technology features are available to make entry and locking when leaving even easier.

Thresholds should be flush with the floor, to make it easy for a wheelchair to pass through a doorway while preventing others from tripping.

Single-floor living: Universal design homes have one or more floors with a bedroom, kitchen, full bathroom, an entertainment area and ample room for barrier-free maneuvering, all on the same floor. Single-story design means a more open, sprawling floor plan that’s safer for children and the elderly, with easier maintenance.

Wide doorways and hallways: Doorways should be at least 0.9 meters (36″) wide, to allow moving larger pieces of furniture and appliances in and out of the home. Hallways that are 1 metre (42″) wide and free of hazards and steps will provide enough room for everyone to move in, out and around easily, even with wheelchairs, scooters or walkers.

Good lighting: Quality lighting can make a significant difference in the accessibility of a living space. People with low vision rely heavily on well-lit rooms and natural light to navigate and perform their daily tasks. If the lighting is too dim or uneven, shadows and glare can make it difficult for those with low vision to see and navigate.

Natural light from windows and skylights can not only enhance the definition of objects in the room, and aid with depth perception, but can also create a more comfortable and enjoyable environment that improves the mood. Natural light is the most desirable type of lighting. It’s easy on the eyes and provides an important connection with the outdoors and nature.

Ambient lighting provides even lighting of the living space, while task lighting delivers light for activities such as cooking, reading or writing. Specific features or objects like a painting or bookshelf can be highlighted with accent lighting.

Controls and switches within easy reach: Light switches should be placed 0.9 – 1 meter (36 – 40″) above the floor. Use large rocker-style switches to make lights easy to turn on and off. Electrical outlets are placed 46 – 61cm (18″ – 24″) above the floor to minimize the need for bending over to access them. Landline telephone, cable television and modem jacks are placed about 46 cm (18″) above the floor.

Thermostats, circuit breakers, alarm system or SMART panels should be on the main floor and easy to access. The thermostat and other controls need to be placed about 1.2 meters (48″) above the floor. Thermostats and any control panels should be easy to read, intuitive and simple to operate. Consider installing a programmable thermostat to save energy at night or when you’re not at home.

Extra floor space: Open space is essential for residents who use mobility aids such as wheelchairs, scooters and walkers. You should allow a 1.5 meter (5′) turning radius so that people using mobility aids can move freely. One of the simplest ways to make your home more accessible might be arranging the furniture, if there’s space. You will need paths between the furniture pieces of at least 61 cm (2′).

Other considerations

Replacing steps with ramps: Installing a ramp to your doorway is often the simplest way to make your home instantly more accessible. A ramp can be used by residents of various mobility levels, including those who struggle with steps, use a cane or walker, wheelchair or scooter. Mobility needs may change over time, so a ramp needs to be sturdy, non-slip and at the correct 1:12 slope.

Lighting enhancements: Illuminated switches that are visible in the dark make nighttime visits to the washroom much easier. Consider installing motion-activated lighting that automatically turns lights on when you enter the room, and off after you leave. Slide plates on electrical outlets make them childproof when not in use.

Pole and table lamps often have switches that are too high, so installing wall switches to control their outlets makes them easier to use. There should be plenty of electrical outlets for current and future equipment placed 46 – 61cm (18″ – 24″) above the floor. Fiddling with extension cords or power bars can be challenging and they could be a fire hazard.

Making bathrooms safer: Bathrooms are by far the most dangerous rooms for people with disabilities or mobility challenges. Shower floors and tubs require non-slip surfaces to reduce the risk of slips and falls. There needs to be enough space for anyone to turn around and maneuver safely. The installation of safety bars, a bench for sitting and position poles help with movement and positioning, and they help users feel secure.

Zone temperature controls: For multi-generational homes, zoned heating and cooling, with separate thermostats for different parts of the house, help keep everyone comfortable.

Visual indicators: Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors should have flashing visual indicators in addition to the audible alarms.

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