Universal Design for Life

Figure 1, Universal Design Kitchen

Figure 2, Universal Design Bathroom

Universal design is design for life. The goal is safe and independent living for just about anyone, any age, any size and any ability. With thoughtful planning and product choices for a new home, universal design can be achieved at little or no extra cost. It is usually very costly to modify a standard home designed for the average-size, able-bodied adult - a description no one fits throughout life.


Could a relative or friend who uses a wheelchair or walker visit you in your home? Could he or she get to and through a door? The living room? A bathroom? What if a family member broke a leg? The concept of making your home “visitable” by people with disabilities is a way to reduce the social isolation of relatives and friends who can’t climb a step. It’s also insurance that you will be able to live comfortably in your own home if temporarily disabled.

Every new home should be designed to be at least “visitable,” with min. 32-in. clear doorways to the living room and one bathroom; no steps within the home to those areas; one bathroom with a 5-ft. turning circle for someone using a wheelchair; and a grade level or ramped entry path and doorway, if possible.

If your home will be elevated (such as in flood zones), and a ramp is not feasible at the time, still consider visitability. Develop a plan of how to best design your home so someone with a disability could be assisted into it, and plan where a ramp or lift could be added if needed in the future.

Universal features

The checklist of universal features provides basic guidelines for design details that are convenient and helpful in any home, without making it look institutional or specialized for a specific disability. Universal design considers the safety and needs of children, short and tall people (both seated or standing), people with visual impairments, dexterity impairments (arthritis, etc.) and the potential need for a walker or wheelchair by a family member or visitor. (Figure 1, Universal Design Kitchen)

Many features are merely placement and style choices. The recommended space clearances create better functional workflows and make it easier to move furniture. With open planning and minimal corridor space, the minimum clearances can be achieved with little or no increase of the total floor plan area. It’s more about thoughtful design, than adding size or extras.

Numerous sources of more information on universal design and accessible design are available, including The Center for Universal Design. (Figure 2, Universal Design Bathroom)

Universal Features Checklist

Throughout house:

  • No level changes on first story
  • Thresholds < 1/2 in. high
  • All doorways > 32 in. wide
  • Hallways, paths > 42 in. wide
  • Lower switches (38-48 in. from floor to operable part)
  • Higher outlets (18 in. from floor to plug holes)
  • Rocker switches or motion sensors
  • Lever door handles, U-shaped cabinet pulls
  • Single-lever faucet controls
  • Easy to reach A/C filter
  • Adjustable shelves, rods
  • Rounded counter and cabinet corners
  • Non-slip, no-glare, even flooring
  • Contrasting color and texture visual aids
  • Ample, variable light without glare, task lighting
  • Space planned for “just in case” elevator shaft, if two-story
  • Kitchen and Laundry - adaptable and convenient for various users:
  • Appliances placed for safety and universal access
  • Microwave at counter height (36 in.)
  • Front-loading clothes washer
  • Cooktop controls at side
  • 42 in. pathway clearances
  • 5 ft. clear turning circle at sink, range, refrigerator
  • Varied counter heights
  • Seated work space in kitchen (30-32 in. high)
  • No center stile on cabinets where knee space might be needed (sink, cooktop)
  • Some outlets, switches on sides of counters
  • Roll-out shelves, baskets, drawers; easy storage access
  • One bedroom and bathroom more fully wheelchair accessible:
  • On ground floor
  • 36 in. wide doorways, no thresholds
  • 24 in. space on latch side of doors
  • Doors open outward
  • 5 ft. turning circle clear floor spaces
  • Bedroom has door to outside
  • Low windows and mirrors (max. 40 in. above floor)
  • No deep pile carpet or slick, shiny flooring
  • Knee space under lavatory (not obstructed by cabinet or plumbing)
  • Reinforced walls at toilet, tub, shower for grab bars
  • Non-slip decorative grab bars
  • Higher toilet, accessible (not enclosed)
  • Easy-transfer shower, tub with seat, or curbless shower
  • Single-lever bath valve, offset for easy reach
  • Higher cabinet toe space (9 in.)
  • Easily adaptable to changing needs

3/31/2021 8:34:38 PM
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