Plan For Your Future Needs and Remodel With Universal Design

Universal Design Room Addition
Four foot wide barn door separates the original home from the addition.

As the boomer generation ages, and lifestyle needs change, more professional remodelers are helping homeowners modify their existing homes to accommodate universal design standards. Even if you’re not sure you need some of these features right now, it’s often easier and less costly to plan ahead for future needs than to remodel later on.

One way to get the most out of your investment long-term is by incorporating elements of  Universal design, according to the National Association of the Remodeling Industry  (NARI). Universal design is an approach to the design of products and environments that makes them easy and comfortable for everyone, regardless of age, ability or situation.

Warner McConaughey, is a certified remodeler who witnessed first hand the need for early planning in his parents’ home. As founder and  owner of  HammerSmith, Inc., a design-build firm in Decatur, Ga., he won a 2008 CotY Award for the residential universal design project he completed for his family’s 2,800-square-foot residence.

“My parents talked for a long time that they want to stay in their current house forever, but my mom broke her ankle about three years ago, and that’s when she realized how hard it was to get around,” McConaughey said. “Universal design isn’t for an old person. It’s for anybody.”

The McConaughey home was a 1968 split-level house with plenty of stairs and spiral staircases. Although both of his parents are fit and able to get around now, the remodeler realized that changes would need to be made in case his parents’ health deteriorated in the future.

The result of the project was a remodel that “looks nothing like a nursing home,” McConaughey said. His parents wanted an addition on the main floor that they could use as a bedroom when they got older, near  accessible living space, but in the meantime, they were going to use it as an art studio. A 4-foot wide barn door separates the original home and the addition. A full bath was added and is now used as a guest bath. The vanity hangs from the wall, a teak fold-down bench was installed in the shower and there’s plenty of space for a wheelchair to maneuver.

Universal Design Bathroom
Added full bath has teak fold-down bench and plenty of room for a wheelchair.

On the outside, ramps were subtly camouflaged in stone to tie to the existing landscape, which will easily  accommodate wheelchairs or walkers in the future. Wide doorways were installed and thresholds made flush. A sunken therapeutic hot tub was also added so that the waterfall near this home atop a hill was visible. Full-height casement windows were used in the new space to help optimize the view. All materials used in the addition mimic those used in the original house to tie the two together.

“Usually, people renovate when they have a life change coming-they’re pregnant, the kids are going to college, or people begin aging,” McConaughey said. “You need to think about universal design before it’s too late. Good design takes time, and anyone can think about how their home can be more accessible for everyone, including visiting  grandparents and young children.

There are many features homeowners can install into their existing homes to make them more user friendly. For example, in the kitchen, make sure there’s plenty of clearance between counters and pantries. Clever storage solutions, such as a lazy susan or rollout drawers, can make pots and pans accessible to anyone. Bathrooms planned with universal design in mind have walk-in showers with no steps, a bench in the shower and hand-held showerheads. Installing plumbing fixtures closer to the outside of the fixture also aids accessibility. Removing lower vanity cabinets creates much-needed knee space for people in wheelchairs.

There are seven basic principles to universal design:

  • Equitable Use: The design accommodates any type of user.
  • Flexibility in Use: The design may be used by people with a wide range of abilities.
  • Simple and Intuitive Use: Design is easy to understand and “figure out”.
  • Perceptible Information: The design itself communicates efficiently to the user.
  • Tolerance for Error: The design is safe and minimizes consequences of accidents.
  • Low Physical Effort: The design can be used without strenuous exertion.
  • Appropriate Size and Space for Approach and Use