Universal design works for everyone, everywhere

Animal skin on bathtub
CC BY 2.0 How not to design a bathroom: note tiny vanity, free standing tub, and animal skins/ Lloyd Alter

Everything we design should be simple to understand and use for people of all ages and abilities. It's not hard.

Sheri Koones writes in Forbes about how people are building houses for "aging in place," but reminds us that it's not only older people who slip in showers or have trouble peeling potatoes. "Building a house for all people at any stage of life and ability is a smart idea because these accommodations can be needed when one least expects it."

This is called Universal Design. Ron Mace, one of the thinkers behind it, wrote:

Universal design is not a new science, a style, or unique in any way. It requires only an awareness of need and market and a commonsense approach to making everything we design and produce usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible.

Sheri describes the many things that people are doing now so that houses work for everybody, from decent grab bars in showers, to lever handles instead of knobs. "Appliance manufacturers are offering options that are safer for any age. Induction stoves are ideal in both homes with little children who can get fingers burned with other stove options and they are excellent for older people who may forget to turn off the heat."

Universal design doesn't have to cost any more either; it is all just common sense. My particular obsession is the bathroom, particularly the shower and tub combo unit. I wrote on MNN:

A standard tub and shower comboA standard tub and shower combo/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In our bathrooms, the dumbest thing anyone ever thought of was the idea of putting a shower head over a tub. Imagine the designer of the first one, thinking, "Let's mix soap, water, a curvy metal floor and hard surfaces together. What could possibly go wrong?" But not everyone can afford the space or the extra plumbing.

Lloyd's bathroomThe Alter bathroom/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In my own bathroom, I moved the controls from the centre of the tub, put a floor drain outside the tub and shower outside the tub. I have not installed grab bars, but have blocking behind the tile for when I decide to do so. There's no extra plumbing cost, (outside of the floor drain) and it works wonderfully.

bathtub against wallLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Meanwhile, if you got to any plumbing showroom, the hot thing is freestanding tubs with really thin walls. There is nowhere to put a grab bar, you can't sit on the edge and swing your legs over, the safe way to get into a tub. They are dangerous.

Then there are electric outlets and switches, commonly put 12 inches and 48 inches from the floor for no good reason. But putting outlets at 18 inches means people do not have to bend as far, and putting switches at 42 inches makes them easier to reach from a wheelchair. It doesn't cost a dime.

thermostatDumb thermostat/ Honeywell/via

There are seven basic principles of Universal Design that can apply to everything:


  1. Equitable use: It can be used by everybody.

  2. Flexibility in use: where that bathtub shown above fails.

  3. Simple and intuitive use.

  4. Perceptible information: Think of that classic round thermostat, easy to install, easy to read, easy to use.

  5. Tolerance for error: This is a big one; people make mistakes. Handrails. Good lighting. Proper marking and signage. These should be everywhere.

  6. Low physical effort: why lever handles are better for everyone.

  7. Size and space for approach and use: "Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture or mobility." Our kitchens are disaster areas for this, with standard counter heights that only work for standard people, with shelves that can't be reached and cupboards under that are inaccessible to everyone.

It's all common sense, and doesn't cost much to do, and works for everyone. Transit expert Jarrett Walker has noted that "the unique feature of a city is that it doesn't work for anyone unless it works for everyone." The same should be said of our homes.

Some of this was adapted from an MNN post.

Universal design works for everyone, everywhere
Everything we design should be simple to understand and use for people of all ages and abilities. It's not hard.

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