Learn The Characteristics of Universal Design for New Home Construction

Universal Design Home In Madison, WI

Universal Design incorporates aging-in-place, disabilities and wheelchair accessibility in home design.


For all types of people facing a range of challenges, building using universal design is the answer to many questions. Universal design begins by looking at each area of a home to make sure that all people residing there can live comfortably and independently.

The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University worked with engineers, product designers, architects and environmental engineers to create a list of 7 Principles of Universal Design. These principles, which include calls for simplicity, equity, and low physical effort among other principles, are applied to all design, whether it is a product, public space or a private home. Universal design has elements that can be applied to spaces designed for aging-in-place, sight and physically disabled and are intended to accommodate people who use a wheelchair for mobility as well as other considerations. 

So, what are some of the main Universal Design concepts that should be considered when building a home?

Home Entry Ways

The universal design features begin outside the home by making certain entrances are free of steps and only have a ½ inch or lower threshold. Door openings should have a 5 foot by 5-foot space that is level and clear, both inside and outside the entry doors. Another universal design feature that could be installed outside is a place to put a package when you are opening the door. Door locks should be well lit so that it's easy to use a key and video or intercom systems should be considered when feasible. 

Floor Plans and Interior Universal Design

Once inside, all aspect of the home should be easy to navigate and comfortable to those with a range of challenges. A universal designed home should have at least one bedroom and one accessible bathroom on the ground level. These rooms should be on the same level as the kitchen, living room and other gathering spaces. That way, a person with mobility issues can easily go from a good night’s sleep to breakfast with the family.

Doors and routes were particularly important in universal design. All the doors need to be 34 to 36 inches wide, and there should be 18 inches of clear spaces so one can pull doors open and move out of the way as they swing. Barn doors with large bar-style door handles work as well. Hallways should be wider, 42 inches at a minimum, and rooms will need a place that is 5 feet in diameter for turning around in a wheelchair.

Moving throughout a home is not the only activity that can have restrictions. It's important to consider the accessibility of electrical outlets and light switches as well as the location and intensity of light for people who have diminished eyesight.  A builder using universal design will install ambient lighting that is bright and focused. Lighting is of particular importance at stairs and entrance ways. Light switches should be lower than normal, 36 to 44 inches above the floor, and extra electrical outlets should be installed higher on the wall where they can be reached by someone sitting.

Spacious Bathroom Design

Bathrooms can be especially tricky for those with challenges. Several simple changes can be made to meet universal design features. First of all, the bathroom must be easy to turn in and move in using either a walker or a wheelchair. Each fixture such as a vanity or linen closet should have almost 4 feet of clear floor space, with at least 36 inches in front of the toilet. Also, there should be 60 inches of diameter in turning space within the room.

A curbless shower that includes an integral seat, waterproof no slip floor, and floor drain is also important. The tub and shower should have offset controls, and a hand-held showerhead can be used by people of all heights. Additionally, a flip up transfer seat that is integral in the tub will allow people to sit in the tub without extra equipment.

Finally, to make sure handwashing is simple. The sink bowl should be mounted close to the edge of the countertop and counters should be a minimum of 32 inches high with a knee space of 29 inches underneath. Plumbing fixtures should be installed with single-lever controls, and mirrors should be full-length.

Kitchen Design For Everyone

Since the trend of kitchen design has become more open, using universal design techniques are not as difficult as bathroom design. The most obvious concerns are around countertops and drawers. Installing pull out drawers, adjustable height shelves and countertops that have long, continuous stretches address many issues like moving large pots of heavy liquids. Appliances should have controls mounted on the front for easy access, and a cook top that has space for knees underneath allows it to be used while someone is seated.

Consider adding knee space under the sink for the same reason. Additionally, to use universal principles with a dishwasher, you can put it on a platform so that the top rack is level with the counter.

Finally, this kind of design can be applied to other areas in the home in creative ways. At least half of the storage areas should only be 54 inches high and should include adjustable closet rods and shelves. Windows can have crank openings that can be opened with one hand.

In the laundry room use platforms to raise the height of the washer and dryer, so users don't have to bend over to use them. If you have a laundry sink, consider leaving knee space underneath and make sure there is a large clear turning radius. If you are designing a home that you plan to live in forever or have children that help in the kitchen, consider adding universal design elements in your next home.

If you have questions about universal design, aging-in-place remodeling or building a home that's one level beyond open concept, contact us to speak with a designer. We've built custom universal design homes for your neighbors and would welcome to opportunity to work on your project.


About Degnan Design Build Remodel
Since 1981 Degnan Design Build Remodel has provided home improvement and construction services to customers throughout Greater Madison, Wisconsin. Our goal is to WOW you with a "Designed For Your Life" solution using a process that will transform your home into a beautiful living space, delivered on time, and on budget. We are known for our communication, respectfulness, and a commitment to our customers and our community. Contact us to speak with one of our designers about your home improvement project.