The definition of Universal Design is changing.  The literal definition  refers to ideas meant to produce environments that are inherently accessible to older people, people without disabilities, and people with disabilities. A more recent perspective looks at the definition of Universal Design as “present time planning”

Almost every residential project I have incorporates some level of universal design. Whether its facilitating a clients ability to “Age in Place”  or accommodating an existing physical need, I take these parameters to heart in offering solution to their design dilemmas!  Here are some recent examples and ideas of how to incorporate Universal Design into a residential project.


VISION IMPAIRED – A few years ago, I had the  privilege of designing a new home for a couple. They were both widowers and had met through a grief group. Between them they had 10 children and 30 grandchildren!  To preserve their confidentiality I will call them “Cathy” and  “Gary”.  They both had a wonderful enthusiasm and were very much engaged in the design process of their new home. They desired courtyard scheme, one that was open in the center to maximize the windows and natural light. “Cathy” wanted  all the main spaces on one level and large front doors. “Gary” wanted an office with huge windows and the best view of the woods. The most interesting and unique factor in designing this home was the fact that Gary had lost his vision 10 years previous.  This dictated many unique features in the house, some of which I’ll share here:

  • An elevator, with intuitive custom controls
  • No thresholds or steps between the front driveway and entry hall and  also minimal thresholds between the home and the center courtyard
  • Open Kitchen layout with no obstructions
  • Open closets and custom closet design with open shelving, no drawers
  • His and her bathrooms. He insisted on a mirror and proper lighting in his.  The shower was curbless and had controls outside the shower. His also had a urinal, similar to this one:

urinal Kal Walner Canada

LIMITED MOBILITY- Another recent client who was interested in a whole house renovation desired a thoughtful solution to some mobility problems after having multiple foot surgeries.  Even though she was walking easily at this time, she was thinking ahead to the possibility of future surgeries or needing to be in a boot or cast. For this reason, we thoughtfully designed her shower with a bench, beautiful grab bar (that doesn’t LOOK like a grab bar, see Sea Chrome Line here) and non slip stone tile.  We were able to keep the main stair hall open and gracious with a beautiful new handrail while using a rear secondary stair for more practical chair lift option. We used glass doors that swing instead of latch. We also designed custom toe kicks at the vanity and kitchen cabinets to allow for more foot room.


AGE IN PLACE- One recent fun client is nicknamed “Hoot” by her grandchildren. I was hired by her daughter to create a new addition as a suite for her mother.  I’ve designed a few of these over the years and learn more each time I create one. On this specific project, they wanted to share the main house kitchen but have separate living, sleeping and bathing spaces. The new addition attaches to the existing dining room, has a smooth floor between old and new, has wider than normal door openings, and looks as if its always been part of the house. The placement of the windows provide privacy in the rear yard, the closet replicates her closet in her previous home she adored. The one large open space allows her to move freely and still host her grandkids in “her part” of the home.  We installed “Flip a grip” hand grips at some locations. “Hoot” has been thrilled with the result and it helped make the transition to a new space much easier.


FLEXIBILITY OF USE – Universal design also means planning ahead. Even in my own home office, I designed it so my special needs son could possibly move into it in the future as his own “apartment”, with his own bath and kitchenette.

The truth is, the term “Accessible” can be both beautiful and functional.  Planning ahead to gracefully age-in-place or consider the unique elements of your family are all part of smart design and should be part of the on going discussion with your architect in planning any new home or renovation project.