Learn The Basics of Universal Design in Home Remodeling

Universal design shares elements of aging-in-place and disabled accessibility design 

The Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal laws have created minimum requirements for builders to ensure people with disabilities have access to a wide range of buildings, protecting them from discrimination. But these standards are just the minimum and don't always take a design or personal preferences into consideration. Whether adjusting to life after an injury, building a home to meet the needs of a disability, or considering renovating for aging-in-place, universal design can provide the accommodations needed while also creating a well-designed and comfortable space where everyone feels welcome.


A 2010 study of people 65 and over conducted by AARP found that nearly 90 percent want to remain in their own home for as long as possible and 80 percent were planning to stay in their current residence permanently.  Aging-in-place takes forethought and often requires renovations to incorporate a person's physical limitations and how these may change over time. With so many Americans looking to spend their later years at home, universal design is an approach gaining momentum to meet that challenge.

Universal design is not just designing a space to meet the minimum requirements for access, but instead, emphasizes design that is both attractive and improves the space for a wide range of people and functions.

The goals of universal design include:

  • creating homes that meet the needs of many different body types and abilities

  • mechanisms that are intuitive and easy to use

  • fostering healthy living and preventing injury

  • considering different cultural, social, economic and individual preferences

Some of these adjustments and features include a sleeping space on the ground floor, no-step entry into homes and bathing area, good lighting, and thought-out floor plans that make getting around the home easier. 

The National Disability Authority describes universal design as the "design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability."

"This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population," the organization's website says. "It is a fundamental condition of good design. If an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use everyone benefits."

Design for long-term needs

This universal design kitchen was built to accommodate the user of a wheelchair.

When families are considering aging-in-place, one of the common struggles is the feeling they are giving up the look and feel of the home they love. They envision elements like a bulky ramp that's out of the way for visitors, or an expensive renovation that uses accessibility features one might see in a hospital. Universal design seeks to make small, no-cost or low-cost adjustments to traditional construction methods that make the home more accessible. Some changes are simple, like switching to a front-loading washer and dryer, installing cabinetry that allows a person to access items from a seated position, widening doorways, eliminating thresholds, and lowering door handles and light switches.

Universal design for many generations

As Baby Boomers look to the future, they envision a home that has the look and feel they want, but can also adjust to their changing needs. In response, builders are adopting designs that include one-floor living spaces and other features that make getting around the home easier. Their focus is not just accommodating the needs of those with disabilities, but also building a kitchen, bathroom or living room that is attractive, stylish and welcoming. 

Ultimately, universal design is an effort to make buildings more inclusive. Designing a home that incorporates universal design ensures that every effort will be made to consider the needs of a variety of age groups and abilities. Every person experiences some form of limited ability, whether it's due to height, recovering from an injury, or simply an aversion to complicated gadgets. Universal design is not one-size-fits-all, and it doesn't require hiring an expensive specialist. It's a design philosophy intended to meet an individual's needs.

A covered back porch provides a comfortable outdoor space integrated with the ramp in this aging-in-place remodel.

Universal design implementation for aging-in-place

At Degnan Design-Build-Remodel, the most common way we implement universal design is through aging-in-place home modifications for our clients.  You can use aging-in-place and universal design principles when building a new home, but aging-in-place specifically refers to the process of remodeling or modifying an existing home to be comfortable, safe and fun so that the owners can stay put in the home and neighborhood that they know and love. 

This article was updated by Abe Degnan on 2/14/2018.

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.