“Universal Design Is Not An All Or Nothing Proposition, But We Should Include As Many Features As Possible”

Universal design is a great concept – one that is often overextended or expected to represent more than was the original intent. A home may have only a couple of universal design features in it – it would be rare for it to have none, but it’s possible. It could have several, or it might have a few dozen. Whether one or one hundred, the home is not labeled a universal design home as a result. Those features exist to help the residents of those dwellings to have a better, easier time of living there.

We shouldn’t look for or endeavor to fashion a “complete” universal design home, because that is a tall order that may be unrealistic to undertake. While the seven characteristics of universal design are accepted by most people, their interpretation of what constitutes a universal design feature can vary.

Thus, there is no minimum number of universal design features to include in a home. The more we can add, the more the residents should enjoy their home – and those who visit them occasionally. This is why we do it – not because someone is keeping score or checking up on us to see what we designed but to make homes more livable for our clients.

As always, budget,  the age of the home, and the physical needs of the clients must be a primary consideration. As we approach the creation of aging in place solutions, we may have more than one way to implement a given treatment. When this is the case, we should go with universal design because it is broader, more comprehensive, and usable by more people than just the client for whom it was created.

That said, to begin evaluating how universal design might be applied to a given home (regardless of whether that home is designed for owner or renter occupancy and whether there presently are any universal design features in place), we will look at both the outside of the home as well as the inside.

The chief concepts of universal design – accessibility, comfort, convenience, and visitability – need to be understood and accomplished on the outside of a residence before moving on to the inside to begin applying them within the walls. Understanding what is going on – and what needs to happen – outside is the first step in evaluating the soundness of a home before we ever walk through the front door.

We want to create a level playing field, literally, where anyone approaching the entrance of the home will be able to do so without encountering any barriers, obstacles, or challenges in using the walkway, driveway, or porch – regardless of their age, physical size, or how mobile they are.

So, we stand in the street or at the curb and begin looking over the front yard and the entrance to the home. We note things we like and things that need to be addressed from a universal design standpoint to make living in the home that much more enjoyable. Unless the home has recently been renovated or was designed especially well from the beginning, it’s going to need some changes. Then the question becomes one of setting priorities among the various items that need to be addressed (inside and outside) and the overall budget.

The occupants of the home may not object to it the way it is now because they have adapted and compensated. They have learned to live with the home in the condition it is in now – even with its shortcomings and challenges. In fact, they may not even consciously recognize things that jump out to us as a trained independent evaluator.

We begin making notes about what we see and what we would like to suggest to the residents as specific areas and items that can be improved. Not all will require construction or outside help, but some may. After our assessment – exterior and interior – we will look at budget and priorities and determine a course of action.

While specific client improvements might be required for balance, use of an assistive device, weak vision, or other concerns, we can create a solution that addresses just their needs, or we can use a universal design approach so that access, safety, comfort, convenience, and overall experience are enhanced for the client and anyone else who visits this home.

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