Designing for Everyone: Elements of Universal Design

By Melissa Dittmann Tracey

The Rathbun Residence, Interior Design Details

The Rathbun Residence, Interior Design Details

LAS VEGAS – As baby boomers age, they’re going to expect more from their housing, and universal design elements are expected to be sought-after features.

Universal design elements—sometimes thought of as features that allow home owners to “age in place”—are marketable to 100 percent of buyers, said Michael Shrenk, who shared details about the universal design elements used in the New Millennial Homes’ Freedom Home in Tampa, Fla. The home features slip-resistant interior and exterior surfaces, adjustable shelves, and extra-wide doorways to accommodate those with disabilities.

“Look at it as a life insurance policy for your home,” Shrenk said about universal design.

Nearly 80 percent of baby boomers say they would like to stay put in their current home for as long as they can. Yet, many homes aren’t built for aging or accessible for those with disabilities. As such, nearly 60 percent of boomers (45-64) said they intend to relocate to a one-level home and nearly half said they’d be looking to downsize, according to a poll conducted by Opinion Research Corporation for AARP.

Shower featuring universal design elements.

Shower featuring universal design elements.

Shrenk and Rhonda Chen, of Interior Design Details, which boasts the universal design remodel The Rathbun Residence in Los Angeles, were two winners of the 2008 Livable Community Awards, which are given from AARP and the National Association of Home Builders to recognize builders who creatively incorporate universal design principles in projects.

Some of the features in the Livable Community Awards included:

  • Extra wiring built-in around light switches so that these switches can be lowered in the future if needed.
  • Open floor plans with 48-inch wide, spacious hallways.
  • Audio and visual smoke detectors.
  • Built-in panic buttons in case of an emergency.
  • Toilet seats that automatically go up and down when you enter or exit the bathroom.
  • A shampoo pedestal sink where you can easily recline your head into the sink from a wheelchair to wash your hair.
  • Grab bars in the bathroom.
  • Automated lighting that switches on or off when you walk in and out of room.
  • Body sprays on the walls of a shower, as well as doorless showers that a person in a wheelchair can roll into.
  • Pull-down closet shelving to easily remove clothes in higher places.
  • A beach style pool with no steps or edging around the entrance of the pool.
The Freedom Home, New Millennial Homes

The Freedom Home, New Millennial Homes

“These features cannot look institutional, they must be beautiful and something anyone would love to have,” Shrenk said. “Wider hallways, pull-down shelves – many builders consider these upgrades and you can market these features to anyone.”

Shrenk said that universal design features in new home construction cost about 5-10 percent extra. But adding those features later in a remodel could cost double or even quadruple, so it pays to think ahead.

Melissa Tracey

Melissa Dittmann Tracey is a contributing editor for REALTOR® Magazine, writing about home & design trends, technology, and sales and marketing. She manages the magazine's award-winning Styled, Staged & Sold blog.

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  1. I am impressed by both these homes, the awards, and the good media coverage.
    I am a little confused though. Universal Design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.
    Why 1) include extra wiring to lower the switches….why not just install them lower? 2) include steps in the yellow house when a clean no step entry would have worked with the grade?
    We are making progress. Lets see this become the standard!!!

  2. Keep universal design in mind when forming a lighting layout and you’ll open a world of possibilities. Katherine Yourself

  3. As I move from the bedroom into the bathroom, the bathroom lighting emits a soothing light to improve my laid- back Saturday morning experience. I take a leak; what a relief. However, me taking a leak unchained an invisible process taking place right inside the urinal. Instant analysis of my urine is sent to the seamlessly integrated computing system running my home. As I move away from the toilet to the sink, an embedded User Interface in the mirror lights up: the visual items are styled according to my bathroom’ …

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