Remodeling a home with universal design in mind often requires structural changes, such as widening doorways and removing walls, particularly when wheelchairs and other mobility devices need to be considered. But there are plenty of ways to incorporate aging-in-place elements into a remodel without changing a home's layout.


Here are 15 features of universal-designed homes that can make your clients comfortable for the long term, no matter what their age or abilities. As always, check your local codes and manufacturers' recommendations when implementing certain changes. Flip through the slide show at left for 20 products that fill many of these design elements.

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15 Ways to Incorporate Universal Design Into a Remodeling Project

From easy door handle change-outs to high-tech home automation, universal design can be approached in numerous ways. Here are more than a dozen to try.

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Consider the Kitchen

Storing pots, pans, and foodstuffs in cabinets translates into lots of reaching and bending around the kitchen. Here are ways to make access easier.
  • Raised base cabinets. Taller toe-kicks help raise base cabinetry off the floor for easier access with less bending. Moreover, setting toe-kicks back a few inches leaves space for wheelchair foot rests. Raising an appliance boxes to certain heights means a more convenient operation of dishwashers, microwaves, or wall ovens. 
  • Drawers and pull-outs. Even able-bodied homeowners hate to dig for items that get pushed to the back of their cabinets. Pull-out cabinetry, slide-out shelves, lazy Susans, and other organizational solutions help bring items to the user, eliminating difficult reaching. 
  • Pull-out work surfaces. For wheelchair users, being able to access a work space designed for seated use and with knee space underneath is key. Look for cabinetry that incorporates pull-out cutting boards. Kitchen designs should feature different countertop heights for users with different needs. Table-style islands and peninsulas (with only legs, and no cabinets beneath), allow for roll-up access.
  • Beyond cabinetry.Kraftmaid offers these tips for universal design in kitchens:
    • Remove threshold areas to allow barrier-free entry and exiting from the room.
    • Allow a five-foot radius of clear turning space throughout the room.
    • Smooth surfaces for countertops and cooktops make it easier to move items and clean up.
    • Bright task lighting helps with food preparation, while in-cabinet lighting banishes dark corners and makes labels easier to read.
    • Single-lever faucets and pulls rather than knobs on cabinets and drawers are easier to grip.
    • Non-skid flooring provides a safe environment for young and old.  

Compliant Appliances

A "range" of options are available for outfitting an accessible appliance suite.

  • Drawer appliances. Several manufacturers offer dishwashers, microwaves, refrigerators, and freezers in pull-out  are installed below the counter, keeping them within easy reach. The downside of drawer-style appliances (microwaves excluded) is their generally smaller capacity compared with standard size models.
  • ADA-compliant appliances. Several manufacturers offer appliances that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). GE offers these guidelines for different appliance options:
    • Ranges, cooktops, and dishwashers have a maximum high forward reach of 48 inches for controls, and a maximum low forward reach of 15 inches.
    • Controls must be operable with one hand without the need for tight grasping, pinching, or twisting of the wrist
    • Range and cooktop controls must be located so as to not require reaching across burners
    • Ovens or cooktops with knee space underneath must be insulated or otherwise protected to prevent injury.
    • All dishwasher rack space must be accessible from the front of the machine for loading and unloading.
    • Controls for top-freezer or side-by-side refrigerators must allow a parallel approach by a person in a wheelchair with a maximum high side reach of 54 inches.
    • Top-freezer refrigerators must have 100% of the fresh food space below 54 inches and 50% of the freezer space below 54 inches.

Easier Access

Small changes let homeowners get around the house with more convenience.

  • Lever-style door handles. Doorknobs can be difficult for achy hands to grasp and turn. Lever handles make operation easier. For entry doors, consider push-button locks so older homeowners don't have to fumble with keys, and children or household helpers can come and go more easily when allowed access.
  • Smooth transitions. Use smooth, low-profile thresholds to ease transitions between different types of flooring, such as hardwood-to-tile. Also, designers recommend defined differences in color and/or texture to indicate level changes in a home.
  • Switch and outlet heights. When considering accessibility for homeowners with limited mobility or reach, or homes with children, a lowered light switch can offer unexpected convenience. One designer recommends light switches mounted 42 inches high. The Americans with Disabilities says outlets can be installed as high as 18 inches.
  • Remote controls. We all use remotes to turn on the TV, but now lighting, HVAC, window shades, range hoods, and numerous other home systems can be operated by remote control.
  • Alarms and sensors. Security systems are usually meant to keep intruders out, but many home automation items can also help keep family members safe inside. Alarmed door locks can alert if a child or older adult is trying to leave the house. Plug-in sensors for small appliances can turn off automatically if the iron or coffee pot is left on, and some can even be operated remotely with a smartphone or Web access.
  • Elevators. It may seem out of the budget for many homeowners, but the convenience and security a home elevator offers could be worth the investment. This is particularly true for homeowners who want to stay in their multi-level homes, but have mobility concerns. Other options include stair lifts for homeowners with limited mobility, or even motorized dumbwaiters to more easily move heavy items (think full laundry baskets) from one floor to another.

Bathroom Basics

Many aging-in-place design changes are made in bathrooms first. Here are some easy steps. 

  • Grab bars and rails. These aging-in-place standards need not be institutional. Bands including Kohler, Watermark, and Great Grabz offer sturdy models with stylish detailing that can coordinate with any bathroom décor. Some manufacturers offer full universal-design showers with good-looking grab bars built in.
  • Comfort-height toilets. Whether the concern is being able to transfer someone from a wheelchair to the toilet, or simply being able to get up easier after use, toilets that with a seat between 16 and 17 inches above the floor work best for universal design. Wall-hung toilets add convenience by keeping the floor surface clear and easier to clean.
  • Trench drains. Besides eliminating the threshold of a shower, streamlining the drain is the next best step toward shower accessibility. Linear drains:
    • Require only a one-direction slope of the shower base, for faster and smoother installation
    • Reduce the need for built-up membranes beneath the tile, improving roll-in access
    • Evacuate more water than a standard round drain, so standing water isn't an issue
    • Can be installed out-of-the-way at the back wall of the shower, and
    • Allow for larger tile sizes and uninterrupted tile patterns, since the slope only goes in one direction

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