Universal Design Homes: Check Out the Pros and Cons

C.E. Larusso
Written by C.E. Larusso
Updated January 3, 2022
family looking around big spacious house
Photo: sturti/ Getty Images

Highlights

  • Expect to pay $790–$7,970 to renovate into a universal design.

  • Arranging a home in line with the ideals of universal design can involve several changes, both large and small.

  • Universal design is perfect for multigenerational families.

  • Implementing universal design strategies can boost your home's value

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Since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, we have become accustomed to the kinds of considerations necessary to make public spaces accessible to all. But what about your home? Universal design offers a way of rethinking the ways houses and apartments are built and designed to make them usable and comfortable for everyone. 

What Is Universal Design?

spacious living room design
Photo: Dariusz Jarzabek/ adobe stock

The concept of universal design, a phrase coined by architect Ronald Mace, was first developed in the 1960s to create public spaces accessible to all bodies without neglecting aesthetic considerations. Curb cuts were one of the first universal design interventions to find widespread application, and they offer a great example of what makes universal design truly universal. While dropped curbs were explicitly developed to respond to the needs of wheelchair users entering and exiting sidewalks at intersections, their implementation improved life for families with strollers, people using rolling suitcases, and many others. 

As the world has begun to take accessibility more seriously, universal design principles have become more critical than ever. 

The ideal of universal design has been applied differently in various sets of national and international design standards. In 1997, Mace and a team of engineers and architects outlined seven principles for both residential and commercial spaces:

  • Equitable use: Everyone should be able to use a building, regardless of disability.

  • Flexibility of use: Designers and architects should anticipate various needs or physical limitations, such as left-handedness or color blindness.

  • Simple and intuitive use: Universal design elements should be simple and easy to use, regardless of background or education.

  • Perceptible information: Signage and other means of communication should be clear to everyone, regardless of language, literacy level, and so on.

  • Tolerance for error: Universal designs should minimize hazards, remaining safe for those who interact with them in ways different than imagined by designers. 

  • Low physical effort: Elements of universal design should require as little physical effort as possible to navigate. 

  • Size and space for approach and use: A building should be sized and arranged comfortably for all, regardless of mobility, body size, or posture. Consider things like lines of sight or differences in grip size.

Universal Design in the Home

Universal design checklist to create an inclusive space, including minimizing stairs and incorporating railings

Given the wide range of different body types and needs, the effort to implement universal design in the home is a lifelong project. There's no one-size-fits-all approach you can take to make your home fully accessible overnight. There are, however, some key design choices and renovations that have become popular among proponents of universal design:

  • Minimize stairs.

  • Consider slipping hazards, especially in flooring and bathroom design (universal bathroom design entails a particularly complex set of considerations).

  • Incorporate railings and handles throughout the home.

  • Illuminate spaces as fully as possible, employing task lighting and LED strips.

  • Opt for motorized blinds and touch-activated or motion sensor lighting.

  • Add a shower seat or bench.

  • Keep hallways and doorways at least 32 inches wide to comfortably accommodate wheelchair users.

  • Install a curbless shower.

  • Replace doorknobs with levers.

  • Ensure that appliance controls are simple and clear to use.

  • Use adjustable lifts in the kitchen to bring range tops and counters within reach for all.

  • Use colors to establish obvious contrasts, even for people with limited visibility.

Pros of Universal Design

white and grey roomy living room
Photo: Photographee.eu / Adobe Stock

Established to benefit everyone, universal design offers homeowners a wide range of benefits. 

Saves Money on Future Renovations

The principles of universal design have been developed through experience and serious thought. When you build or decorate your home in line with them, you’re drawing from a deep pool of collective wisdom regarding the practical consequences of design choices—meaning many of the factors that might otherwise require expensive future alterations have been taken into consideration. Homeowners pursuing a universal design home will save significantly by opting for a new build rather than adding common design elements in renovations.

Anticipates a Lifetime of Changing Needs

Universal design helps to age in place. If you’re planning to remain in your home for the rest of your life or even just the foreseeable future, making design and renovation decisions that’ll suit your aging body is a no-brainer. Opt for nonslip floors, enhance your lighting, and add railings now to avoid accidents and save money as you grow old in your beloved home. 

Boosts Home Value

As needs and expectations for accessible homes become more widespread, sellers of houses incorporating universal design features have a leg up on those who don't. Many of today's buyers are looking for homes that can accommodate multigenerational families or those who wish to age in place. A house following universal design principles will appeal to a broader pool of buyers than a less accessible one, making for a more competitive sale. 

Enhances Safety

When you take the time to minimize design features hazardous to some people, you make it safer for everyone. Universal design can reduce the risks of slips, falls, and other injuries that can endanger your family or visitors and, in some cases, become a legal liability. 

Makes Your Home Comfortable for Everybody

If your home features many stairs, narrow hallways, and lacks railings, it's probably not an inviting environment for every guest. Even if you're not ready to renovate your entire home, undertaking a few minor design changes with universal access in mind will make your home more welcoming and comfortable. 

Cons of Universal Design

All things being equal, there are no good reasons to spurn universal design in principle. But there are a few barriers you may encounter in implementing it in your home. 

Renovation Costs

A universal design isn't necessarily more expensive than a less accessible home when it comes to new builds. On the other hand, if you are renovating an existing home, establishing a universal design can quickly become costly. Costs can vary immensely, depending on the current configuration of the house and the most significant accessibility considerations. 

Expect to pay anywhere from $790 to $7,970 in a typical case. Making a home wheelchair accessible can run between $2,000 to $60,000 or more. Building an accessible bathroom costs $9,000 on average, and new grab bars range between $100 to $500 each

Demands Time and Effort

While previous efforts to achieve universal design have imparted several recommendations for enhancing accessibility, universal design isn't a program that can be followed. It’s a way of thinking that’ll influence every decision you make about your home. If done right, building or renovating with universal design in mind will take more time and energy than focusing on your immediate needs or aesthetic preferences alone. 

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