Modern universal design: Why it really is good for everyone
Modern universal design: Why it really is good for everyone

For years, there has been a misconception by the buying public that universal design—products and environments designed to accommodate as many people as possible, regardless of age, ability or circumstance—will end up making a new home look institutional or handicap-accessible.

This really couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, elements of universal design are appearing so often in homes these days that buyers may not even be aware that accommodations for aging have been included into the overall plan.

The universal appeal of universal design

Think no-threshold showers. Wider doorways and hallways. Raised countertops. Sleek, lever-handle faucets in the kitchen and bathrooms. Levers for door handles instead of knobs. Fashionable towel bars that can also function as grab bars near showers, toilets and tubs. Push button or paddle light switches instead of traditional toggle-style switches.

“The new universal design is pretty, easy to use, and has high-tech functionality that is nearly invisible,” says Mary Jo Peterson, a Connecticut design consultant who has become an industry expert on universal design. She sees universal design as a design approach for 50+ living that supports the wellness and quality of life that baby boomers, in particular, aspire to.

Many suppliers in the home-building industry, such as Kohler (see video above), are bending over backwards to create stylish products for baby boomers that accommodate aging limitations yet still feel trendy and modern. When we were at the International Builders Show this February, we saw many innovative universal design products from a number of manufacturers, including toilets with integrated night-lights and touch-screen showers and security systems.

Design solutions for better working and living

We also noticed that active adult communities across the country are starting to integrate more universal design elements into their floor plans. One innovative design idea is to place the laundry next to the master suite and create a horizontal laundry chute that passes laundry through the wall into a laundry basket. Another popular trend is to install sliding or foldable glass doors to open up a family room to an outdoor space, creating a seamless indoor/outdoor living area.

Peterson feels that universal design must enhance both the function and the beauty of the space to work. As a kitchen designer, she is excited to see changes occurring in appliance heights, cabinet features, under-cabinet task lighting and layouts for kitchens. “We are at last designing appliances at the right height in kitchens,” she says. Microwaves have been dropped into drawers, dishwashers are raising up to an easier loading height and cabinets now feature roll-out drawers. Task lighting is also an important design consideration in kitchens today, helping out aging eyes while providing an appealing work space for everyone else as well.

Custom homes tailored to custom needs

At McKenzie Collection, we are seeing more and more buyers express an interest in making these subtle changes to their new homes. Some options may add a little to the price, but none are budget-busters, and all add up to creating a home that is perfect for “aging in place”—the ability to stay in your current home rather than needing to move to a new residence to accommodate such aging limitations as arthritis or knee, hip or shoulder difficulties.

We are incorporating more and more universal design elements in our homes each year. Raised bathroom countertops are now standard in our homes, and many of our customers are opting for wider doorways and hallways, no-threshold showers, grab/towel bars and levered handles on doors and faucets. There are many other options available as well: adding a shower bench or shampoo niche, installing low-stair lighting to help with night vision, moving electrical outlets and thermostats to an easy-to-reach height, or installing rails on both sides of a staircase.

Universal design features truly make life easier for people of all ages. Check out Aging in Place for more kitchen design ideas and visit Better Homes and Gardens for bathroom inspiration. We would love to hear about any ideas you have that would make your new home easier and more livable for you. Let us help you design a home that looks great and provides the lifestyle you desire for years to come!

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