For several years we have been hearing that the Baby Boomers are aging and people will need to install accessible products in their homes. There may be some truth to this but most consumers have been slow to embrace this idea. Many people think of accessible products as things like grab bars or shower seats, useful but not terribly attractive. Also, people think of these products as things that you need if you are ill or infirm or aged and we don’t like to see ourselves that way. These products tend to be viewed as something you are forced to use rather than as something you will enjoy.
Fortunately that thinking has begun to change. We have moved away from the idea of making our homes “accessible” or “handicapped” compliant and have begun instead to think in the direction of “Universal Design”.
“Universal Design” is defined as “The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” (Copyright 1997 NC State University, The Center for Universal Design). In other words it is about planning and building in a way that makes a space useable for many people at all phases of life. This builds on the fact that, in addition to aging, there are many reasons that may require a home to be more user friendly. Planning in this way makes a home more useable now and for the years to come. Many of us are living in homes that we plan to stay in for many years. Doesn’t designing it to work for us make sense?
Universal Design can be about simple things, like using lever handles (which do not require the ability to grip) instead of knobs or it may be about using new, intelligently designed products. We have seen products that were once made for special applications that are now adapting and moving into the mainstream. One good example of this in the bathroom is the toilet. Seat height used to be about 15” unless you purchased a “handicap” model which was typically made for commercial applications. People started requesting the taller models for home use and slowly manufacturers realized that the market for these taller models was much bigger than just for “handicapped” installations. Nowadays your can purchase a wide variety of styles in what is now called “comfort height” or “right height” or “universal height”; names that reflect that these taller models are beneficial for all sorts of people.
Universal Design is not about products made specifically for certain groups of people. It is about using layouts and products that are useful and marketable to people with a diversity of abilities and preferences. It’s about using products that make a design simple to understand and use for a variety of people. It’s about making things that are intuitive and do not require a lot of physical effort to use and have a tolerance for error. It’s about making our living spaces better for everyone and useable for a longer time.
In my next post I will discuss some kitchen and bath products that are making a splash in the Universal Design community.