Interior Design with Safety in Mind

Oseye Boyd
Written by Oseye Boyd
Updated January 30, 2015
shower bench for safety
Shower benches aren't just for older adults. Customized seats offer convenience for shower users. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Deborah M. of Portland, Ore.)

Universal design enhances safety for people young and old.

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We often think of home as the safest place on Earth. It’s where we get away from it all, relax after a long day at work and feel most comfortable.

Now think about the last place you or someone you know fell. Chances are it happened at home. In fact, according to the National Council on Safety, falls at home are the second most common type of “unintentional home-related injury deaths.” Common places for falls include stairs, doorways, ramps, uneven surfaces, ladders and crowded spaces.

Fortunately, your home doesn’t have to be a potential danger zone. If you plan to remodel, it’s easy to incorporate universal design features for safety, interior designers say.

The bathroom is an easy place to start as slips and falls — for both toddlers and elderly — often occur here. Installing grab bars is a safe solution, and they aren’t just for the elderly. Grab bars benefit everyone, especially young children who can use the bars to hold onto while maneuvering in and out of the tub. While bathtubs are a safe option for young children, they pose risks for older adults.

RELATED: 7 Tips to Make Your Bathroom Handicap Accessible

“When it comes to adults then all of a sudden a tub is an impediment,” says Michael Henson, designer and project consultant with highly rated Neal’s Design Remodel of Cincinnati, Ohio. “No tub is huge because [older adults] don’t get around as well. Putting their leg up 14, 15 inches is a huge risk even with grab bars.”

Shower benches aren’t just for the elderly, either, Henson adds. A bench comes in handy for leg shaving or when you’re ill, not to mention unforeseen broken bones or sprains that often happen with children who play sports.

The idea is to remodel for today with the future in mind, but homeowners often need convincing. Younger adults often don’t believe they need ambulatory assistance, and older adults don’t want to admit they do, Henson says.

“Universal design is all about all ages, all users, old, young, sighted, blind,” says Debby Allmon, vice president at highly rated Schloegel Design Remodel of Kansas City, Missouri. Allmon is a universal design certified professional with the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. “It’s just, in general, smart planning so that everybody can use it well and safely.”

FOR MORE: Universal Design: How to Create an Accessible Bathroom

floor threshold universal design
Even flooring eliminates trip hazards while transitioning from room to room. (Photo courtesy of Neal's Design Remodel of Cincinnati, Ohio)

Other areas to consider

Stairs: Carpet is safest on stairs, Henson says. If you prefer the aesthetics of hardwood and skid-resistant treads aren’t your thing, choose a matte finish instead of gloss.

“A gloss finish is kind of like stepping out onto the ice,” Henson says.

Add handrails to both sides of stairs (indoors and outdoors), if possible. Fill the back of basement stairs to avoid falling through. Ensure baluster spacing is up to code to prevent a child from slipping through or becoming stuck.

Entryways: Avoid trip hazards when going from room to room or even into a walk-in shower, Allmon says.  Transitioning from one type of flooring to another or a floor that’s higher in one room than another can be difficult. Threshold ramps make it easier. Opt for a zero-entry shower where there’s no curb to step over. If possible, make doorways wide enough for a wheelchair to pass. 

Electrical outlets: Electrical outlet placement should be up to code so cords aren’t in walking areas, causing a potential trip hazard.

Handles: Opt for lever handles on doors and faucets instead of round knobs. “If something happens to you — you break a hand — or you’re elderly and have arthritis, a lever is easier than a knob,” Allmon says.

Clearance space: If it’s possible to make more room in the kitchen, do so, says Henson. Not only will it make it easier to maneuver when several people are in the kitchen at once, but it adds room for a wheelchair.

“Making sure that if you have islands and things like that, that they’re to code,” Henson says. “That way you can ambulate around the island. You have to have 38 or 39 inches from the edge of the countertop to the island so you can navigate. Ideally, you want to have 42 to 48 inches.”

Fore more information: Check out the Angie's List Guide to Interior Design and Home Decorators

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