Using universal design

Universal design is one of the most important trends in residential construction and home improvement today. Also known as disabled access or visitability, this type of design allows everyone to enter and exit a house, move from room to room, and use the facilities. It is essential not only for family members who have limited mobility but also for visitors with physical challenges (hence the term visitability). Although remodeling to accommodate a disability may seem like an overwhelming project, there are actually certain specific guidelines to follow, as specified in the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG). What’s more, your local government may offer financial incentives.

What is universal design exactly?

Universal design must include the following three fundamental components:

1. At least one entrance to the home must have zero steps. Grading or an appropriately designed ramp should be used where there is a slope up to the entrance.

2. The doors to all interior rooms and bathrooms must be built with a minimum of 34 inches of clear passage space.

3. There must be bathroom facilities on the house’s ground level — at least a half bath (that is, a toilet with raised seat and a sink), but preferably a full one, including a universally accessible shower.

In addition, numerous other modifications will make the home safer and more convenient for individuals with limited abilities. Some of the most useful are:

slip- and trip-resistant floor surfaces to allow easy movement of wheelchairs or walkers

glare-free lighting with readily reachable, rocker-type light switches

higher kitchen counters and accessible shelving

kitchen and bathroom sinks offering adequate knee clearance

lightweight interior doors which require minimal physical strength to open and close

easy-to-grasp door handles and cabinet pulls in place of knobs

wall-mounted grab bars, especially in bathrooms

tiled shower seat

an elevator to the upper floor(s)

an emergency call system

Consult a skilled remodeling contractor who is familiar with the ADAAG. Together you can decide which renos are best for your home, and how to incorporate them in a way that is both functional and attractive.

Who needs universal design?

For some time already, special building accommodations have been accepted as necessary for adults and children who depend on wheelchairs for mobility, as well as people using walkers or canes. However, there are also less visible handicaps such as weakness, stiffness, vertigo, and so on, due to age, injury, or diseases like osteoporosis or arthritis. Not only does universal design benefit individuals born with a limitation, it also permits aging in place. Unfortunately, remodeling to accommodate a disability may suddenly become an urgent priority when a family member is involved in a serious accident, suffers a heart attack or stroke, or experiences the rapid onset of a debilitating illness.

Government involvement

A handful of cities require by law that all new homes be constructed according to universal design principles, and the number is growing. When it comes to retrofitting, the approach is more the carrot than the stick. Many communities offer incentives, such as property tax abatement on the value added by the remodel, to equip your home for special needs. NOTE: It is necessary to inquire about whether this type of program exists in your locality before applying for your building permit, and be sure to specify in your permit application that you would like to request the incentive. Otherwise, you may not be eligible.

Please note that many of these incentives are granted for visitability remodels, making them available not only to homeowners who must remodel to accommodate a disability but also to those wishing to provide universal accessibility to their guests or to prepare for eventual aging in place.

Laura Firszt writes for

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