Designing a Universal Home, a Home for Everyone

As previously mentioned in the previous post that I posted about the elderly, elderly people are not disabled people. And they should not be discriminated from anything. It is true that when a person gets older, he or she can face a few problems, but this issue cannot be generalized. According to patient.co.uk, a informative website in the medical field, “The number of people aged 65 and over is estimated to increase by 65% in the next 25 years, with a doubling of the number of people aged >85 years”  (Disability in Older People, 2010). This makes us wonder, will the elderly be able to combat the challenges that they might have in a house that was not built to be universal? It is very vital to consider designing a universal house for all ages. As a person grows older, he or she might get married and have kids, then grow older with his or her family. As a result, a home should be made to be accessed by all age groups, ranging from babies to the elderly. This is why we need to consider designing a universal house in architectural plans that would be accessible by all, the disabled, the blind, the elderly, the infants, and more.

When it comes to designing something universal, it does not mean to design something that only works, it must also look appealing and attractive to the user. This might be a challenge for architects (interior and exterior) as they need to build a house that is functional and beautiful at the same time. Designers, architects and families can join together to create accessible homes that restore hope, capabilities and grace of living for everyone, regardless of their age or abilities.

According to the book, The Accessible Home: Designing for all Ages written by Deborah Pierce, eighty four percent of people would rather stay in their current homes during their retirement, yet only sixteen percent have taken the initiative to change their homes to adapt to their abilities (Pierce, 2012). Speaking from my personal experience, my grandmother still lives in the house that she used to live in when she got married to my grandfather; she does not want to move out, and would rather stay there. When you get used to an environment, a house that belongs to you, it could be very difficult to move to another place just in order to increase accessibility to the house. This is why if we consider designing the house to be accessible by all ages from the start, this will not be a problem, as regardless of the age, the design will still be an appealing functional design that would help everyone live life without feeling incapable, or hopeless.

Our main major goal when it comes to designing a house that would be accessible for all ages is to design a beautiful home that would support people of all ages and abilities, without advertising “accessible” for everyone who comes in. This is the main meaning of Universal Design.

Lynette Evans, an interior designer who was motivated to fully design a house for her parents, has a revolutionary vision when it comes to universal design. She wanted to make a house for her senior parents, a house that would not force them to leave or move out due to lack of accessibility. A house that would not get in the way of living their lives. As her parents grew older, they started realizing that their old house could not keep up with their changing needs, and this applies to all of us. When we grow older, we might start experiencing life from a different point of view. Entering the house or using the kitchen might not even be the same. Some impairments that the elderly might experience include foot problems and arthritis that would not allow them to walk or move in the way that they want to. And this is why some elderly with chronic impairments could need a wheelchair to help them walk. In addition, vision and hearing impairments are also common problems that people aged over 65 are more likely to have. These are all factors that can affect our decisions of what to design.

Debora Pierce talks about the importance of knowing what “accessible” truly means, as it is not only restricted to being functional. She states that an accessible home that is designed for all ages must be function, good looking, safe, light and comfortable in all ways. Obvious ramps and grab bars with an ugly design are not the solution for a good design.

Starting with the entrance of the house, a beautifully designed ramp that is used by everyone, and not only by people with disabilities is an essential thing to have. Ramps should not be inclined in a way where it is hard for the person on the wheel chair to use it, as the person might not have enough arm strength to lift himself or herself up. In addition, why should we make it harder for people on wheelchairs to use the ramp if we can adjust our architectural design in a way to make it easily accessible?  In order to build ramps with a proper inclination, we must use the 1:12 ratio, which means that for each inch of height, twelve inches of ramp length is needed. Of course, it would be even better to design a home without the need for a ramp. If this is achievable, we must also consider the entrance door so that it would not have any barrier that would cause a person to trip. This calls for a “Barrier-Free” design. A wooden non-skid surface for the ramp would be suitable as it can last for years. A shelf with rounded corners should also be added in case the person using this ramp is on a wheelchair and needs to put some packages while entering or locking the door. The door should also have the capability to automatically open using a remote that the owner would have. In addition, having buttons outside and inside that would automatically open the door once they’re pressed (if access is granted using the intercom inside the house) would also be suitable.

One of the important things of having a barrier free home is to remove all the barriers that can come in the way for a person with bad vision or on a wheel chair. This is one of the things that inspired Lynette to put the carpets all around the house integrated to the wooden floor so that you would not trip, whether as a child, or an elderly person on a wheel chair.

Another thing to consider is the bathroom. A bathroom with no thresholds and a nice design functions properly for everyone without having pitfalls or giving the user a chance to trip. A light weight shower seat and grab bars should be included in showers. Moreover, wooden bars on the sides of the bathroom can give a modern design and at the same time act as bars that a person can lean on if he or she has difficulties walking. In order to make the sink accessible to everyone, a motorized height adjustable sink can be put in bathrooms and the kitchen to allow everyone to use it efficiently without a hassle. Furthermore, it is vital to design all doors on the interior and exterior of the home big enough to fit people with wheelchairs, walkers or baby walkers.

The usage of rounded surfaces and rounded corners in the kitchen and the rest of the house is another thing to take into consideration. Elderly people can be a little shaky, this way if they’re reaching for something or accidentally falling on something they won’t hurt themselves as badly as it would be without having rounded surfaces and corners. The integration between beautiful and functional design is important as our aim is not to explicitly reveal that this place is accessible, but to give everyone the chance to function properly while living gracefully. If designed correctly, an accessible kitchen would be easily accessible by everyone in the house without causing any burden on a certain age group. Removing additional cabinets to give more space can be useful. The kitchen table must have an appropriate height so that it would not be a hassle to include everyone on the kitchen table, even if it’s someone on a wheelchair. According to ageinplace.com, “kitchen contains the most concentrated number of universal design features in a house”. This is what forces us to put a lot of concentration on universal design concepts in the kitchen, as if it was not designed properly, it can cause a serious hazard to people using it, ranging from little children tripping over to senior citizens. The dishwasher can be designed in a drawer-like design so that it actually looks like a drawer that can be pulled by anyone, whether a person on a wheel chair or a middle aged man. In addition to the kitchen table, the counter in the kitchen must have rounded corners as well. This increases safety with a touch of beautiful design. Also, instead of having a tall refrigerator where items might not be reachable by people having different heights, we can integrate the refrigerator in a drawer-like design as well. It does not only make it easy for little kids to reach items in the fridge, but also to people who have physical disabilities. One thing we need to keep an eye on here is that we should not make it very obvious, but integrate it smoothly to the kitchen’s design. All drawers, cabinets, closets must have handles that can easily be gripped. These handles should be designed in a loop-hole design that are made as large as possible with an attractive design to make it easy for people of varying abilities to grip. In addition, we must have enough space in the kitchen for a wheelchair, a walker or a baby walker passing through. The height of the sink, cabinets and closets emphasize that everyone, regardless of age can use the kitchen efficiently and easily. Having a low built in refrigerator, oven and dishwashers significantly increase the accessibility of their usage. Adjusted countertops are also handy in the kitchen. These are all designs that would not cause a burden to the normal user, yet they allow everyone to use the kitchen without being hindered by lack of mobility or height. A cabinet bin can also be used to enable a person to work well in a seated position. Another thing that can be really useful is to have a motorized adjustable sink counter. This way, the sink would accommodate children, a person with physical problems, someone with a mobility device or even someone who is very tall. This is the basics of “Universal Design”.

Skylights that provide a lot of natural light should also be included for aging eyes. Light colored wood on the ceiling that reflects the light back to the ground gives a natural feeling of light without the uncomfortable bright light that would not be suitable to the eyes of the elderly. The good thing about this is that because it looks natural, and it would not be a discomfort for children or all ages as well.

The stairs in the house should include custom made hand rails that are rounded and soft in order to help increase the safety and easiness of climbing up or going down the stairs. Moreover, there is a need for an elevator that is big enough to fit an electric wheel chair.

In a home that is designed to be universal, it might be useful to remove the need to use door knobs to open doors. Sliding doors can slightly give a sense of inelegance, this is why having French doors could be ideal, as they are light in weight, easy to open and have an elegant design. Having handles to operate the doors makes it possible for everyone to open the door, even with an elbow. Door knobs are hard to handle, especially for a woman with arthritis fingers for instance. This way, having handles would enable everyone to open and close the doors, even if it was a young mother who was holding groceries with the two hands or a grandfather who has problems holding onto stuff.

The universal design would make everyday activities easier without feeling institutional or special. The fact that you’re older does not mean that you won’t need much space; on the contrary, having spacious halls and entrance doors is something very useful in a universal home. This way, even if a person is on an electric wheel chair, he or she would still be able to go wherever he or she wants.

All in all, designing age-friendly houses would inspire people to stay in their homes instead of leaving their homes just because of the lack of accessibility. In addition, designing a house for all ages does not mean that style needs to be forfeited, it just means that we need to integrate style and design with functionality. It is true that when people grow older, their vision, physical and hearing capabilities might change, but if we can design a home that will still be good, comfortable, safe and cozy for everyone, regardless of their ages, why cannot we do that from the start?

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