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Green - Universal Home Design

Universal Home Design
There’s nothing quite like a quiet afternoon nestled on a park bench, breathing in the peaceful beauty of a bountiful garden. When you are in need of inspiration for your own garden or landscape, visit a local botanical garden. The splendor is infectious, and it’s most educational, too.
Photo Credit: SC Botanical Gardens |

As the baby boomer generation begins to move closer to retirement, and interest in purchases of retirement homes comes closer to their grasp, many 50- and 60-somethings might neglect to consider how their homes may accommodate health related issues as they continue to age. This relatively new concept of learning how to age in place is commonly known as Universal Design.

Although the task might seem daunting and expensive, accommodating the possibility of being less mobile is relatively easy and doesn’t deter from the aesthetics of the house. There are three major areas of consideration for universal design; life-safety, fall prevention and convenience.

The number one life-safety issue is providing an accessible exit from each floor. In two story houses, many architects create an accessible exit path by either installing a residential elevator or stacking elevator sized closets for a future elevator. In houses less than five feet off the ground, we often include a ramp to the back or side door. A custom designed ramp will fit in with the overall architecture of the house.

Lynn Coleman, an occupational therapist at National Heathcare in Greenville, SC, finds that the first problem that she runs into when working with her home heath patients begins with exit safety. “Many people do not consider how hard it can be to deal with immobility when exiting a home,” said Coleman. “Small changes can be made that won’t affect the aesthetics of the home like including railings with stairs or making sure that front lawn landscaping gives enough space around the main exit door to accommodate the possible addition of a ramp.”

Doorway and hallway widths are also important to consider. Accessible doors are 36 inches wide and will preferably have flush thresholds but a maximum threshold of one-half inch exterior and one-forth inch interior. Hallways should be at least 42 inches wide. Every room should have an open space of 5 feet by 5 feet for wheelchair maneuverability.

Although every doorway and hallway should abide by these dimensions, the bathroom doorway and area should not be compromised. Roughly one-forth of all in-house accidents occur in the bathroom. “As a person ages and is required to use walkers and wheelchairs, it is incredibly important that they can easily maneuver with these devices,” said Coleman. “Walk-in showers, room for railings around the toilet and enough space to allow for a turnaround with the wheelchair or walker are must-haves.”

The building code requires that bedrooms have an egress window in case of fires. A house designed for aging in place will have three foot wide exterior doors from the bedrooms opening onto an area of refuge, which might be directly on grade or a balcony large enough for a wheelchair.

According to the AARP Public Policy Institute, approximately 43 percent of indoor and outdoor fall injuries among older persons occurred at floor or ground level (that is, not from a height). Fourteen percent of falls took place on stairs or steps, 11 percent from a curb or sidewalk, and nine percent from a chair, bed or other furniture. Floor material, adequate lighting, and grab bars are the keys to help prevent these falls. Floors should be smooth, firm and slip resistant. Carpet should be low pile (less than one-half inch) with a firm pad. There should be plenty of natural light as well as both overall room lighting and task lighting. Particular care should be given to lighting stairwells, showers, entry doors and exterior walkways. Stairwells should have switches at both the top and bottom and hallways at both ends.

Stairwells should have handrails on both sides of the stairs. In bathrooms, blocking should be installed or provided for future installation of grab bars in the shower, bathtub and around the toilet. Likewise, homeowners might want to install blocking in the hallways for future grab bars.

For greater convenience, home buyers might consider one floor living, low maintenance materials, and a five-foot accessible aisle in the carport or garage for wheelchair access. Lever door handles and faucets are easier for arthritic hands to open. Finally, the construction of a separate guest house or two master suites can accommodate an aging relative or a live in nurse.


National Aging in Place Council Website
Americans with Disabilities Act Website
Center for Universal Design Website