Aging in Place: What is Universal Design?

By Michael Moore Jr.,

For those looking to stay in their home long-term and age in place, which according to AARP could be as many as 87% of adults age 65 and older, “universal design” could be your key.

Experts discussed this theme at the Aging in the Right Place Forum held in Sarasota, FL. The panel featured a variety of experts on aging who shared vital keys to planning and implementing steps for those looking to age in place. A primary focus of the forum was how to adapt your current living environment in order to improve accessibility, convenience, levels of care, functionality and safety. The best way to do that includes incorporating some elements of universal design.

For Chuck Vollmer, board member of the Universal Design Coalition and owner of 101 Mobility, a company that focuses on mobility and accessibility solutions for homes, thinking about universal design is more important than ever as our population ages and the majority of people wish to stay in their own home. “The first thing you have to understand about universal design is what it is, because a lot of people believe that universal design means you put in grab bars when you have a problem. That’s not universal design; that’s a necessary evil,” says Vollmer. “Universal design is a plan … and it’s not just a plan for seniors, it’s a plan that works for and is important for everybody.”

There are seven basic principles of universal design that were developed in 1997 by a group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers, with the purpose of guiding design in a way that gives homes characteristics that make them more livable. These principles are equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use.

Essentially, it boils down to design elements that make homes simple and easy to use, consistent and easy to understand, and requiring low physical effort with as little chance for hazard and harm as possible, regardless of a person’s stage of life. This includes eliminating or minimizing stairs when possible, replacing doorknobs with levers, trading traditional faucets for more accommodating models, minimizing level changes, widening hallways so they are at least 36 inches and much, much more.

Of course, you’re not going to be able to do this all at once, which is why it’s important to have a plan. Universal design shouldn’t be an overwhelming concept that ties your hands, but instead should be used as a guide that helps you consider what to look for in a house or what changes to make in your own home. Researching its concepts, understanding what it is, and speaking with contractors and consultants who understand universal design is key. Says Vollmer, “Whether you’re getting a little older and are starting to have some mobility issues, or there’s a child that has special needs or a disability, this is a plan that should work for everybody. And that’s the point.”


Brought to you by Pantano Real Estate. If you’re ready for a move or just planning ahead, call Erik Bashford at 302-540-8048 or Holly Henderson-Smith at 302-298-2836 to learn more about all the ways they can help you.

2020-02 Pantano universal design


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