Universal designs for the home

Lee Schmidt

Designs, style, materials and colors have evolved through the years. I remember mustard yellow appliances, Formica counters, narrow hallways and the dark wood casings of homes built in the ’50s and ’60s. Most of us felt modern as we painted the wood trim white, brought in red and orange shag carpets, added acoustic ceilings and rain lamps into our space. The ’70s ushered in earthtones complimented with grass paper on our walls.
In the mid-’90s we decided that stone was the answer so we installed granite in the kitchen, marble in the baths, tile in the entry and cast concrete fireplaces became the “in thing.” To this day,  I enjoy visiting new home developments to see what designers have decided that we should buy next.
A term that is getting a lot of play is “universal design.” The concept is that homes should be designed for all ages, and should be adaptable to everyone as we mature. Since the needs of a young family differ from those of a retired couple, these universal designs are both flexible and scalable.
 A no step, accessible entrance: This no barrier access point is important for seniors trying to get into the home carrying groceries, boomers pulling luggage after a vacation or young families with a stroller or toddler. It’s one solution that serves everyone.
First floor bedroom and bathroom: This works great as a study or office, and can easily be transformed for a teenager, guest room and future main bedroom when the owners no longer wish to navigate the stairs.
Wide doors and hallways: Wider doors and halls benefit those who use wheelchairs or walkers. They also work well for a mother walking with a toddler and certainly make moving furniture in and out easier.
Curbless showers: For younger clients, a no step shower has the contemporary design they desire, and it’s practical for mature clients who prefer easier access. As we age, we may want to incorporate a seat, grab bars and a handheld showerhead.
Counters: We should opt for counter heights that range from 28 inches to 48 inches, or install adjustable ones.  Instead of high bars, we should opt for table heights which will accommodate a wider audience. Pull out shelves will make storage easier to access.
As we mature, we should be aware of hazards that may exist in our homes and what we can do to minimize those dangers.
Clutter: Newspapers, bags, books and other items piled in corners can be a tripping hazard and potential fire hazard. Give or throw away things that are no longer needed. If you are concerned about needing the items in the future, box them up, date the box and if you don’t open the box in one year, it’s apparent they aren’t needed.
Flooring: Cushy carpet may feel nice, but it’s an impediment for someone in a wheel chair or walker. If carpet is a must, a short pile will work much better. Area rugs can also be tripping hazard that should be avoided.
Kitchens: Microwaves should be on the counter for easier access. Installing the microwave above the cooktop will force us to lean across the cooktop to reach the device, which could be hazardous. Install anti-scald faucets, loop handles on drawers and stove controls should be on the front of the stove for easier access.
Bathrooms: There should be a light in the shower, easy access, anti-scald water fixtures, grab handles, seat and an emergency call button.
Lastly, check smoke detectors annually and install one in every bedroom, the hall and living area. Also install a carbon monoxide detector.
If we combine the concepts of universal design and make the appropriate adjustments, our homes will be comfortable and safe even as we mature.

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