Universal Design

by Keith Wilder

This month features Universal Design, home building designed for usability, functionality and social inclusion.


As Americans we plan for our future but we never plan to get old.


Molly and Jack were a young vibrant couple with two kids. They finally made it to a point in their lives where they could invest in their dream home: a three-story Rural Gothic house. What they don’t realize is that they’re going to grow old, or someone could encounter an injury leading to a possible temporary or permanent disability. I would like to recommend universal design to any new homeowner. Here’s why…

I try to utilize the concepts of universal design in every new home and remodeling project, such as wider doorways, low or no threshold showers and putting all of the components necessary to live in a home on a single story where you have sleeping quarters, a bathroom, laundry room and a kitchen all on one floor so that if you ever lose mobility, you can still maneuver comfortably. On new construction I always encourage slab on grade which maintains a step-free entrance; that way if there’s anybody in a wheelchair or walker or with bad knees, they can access their home easily.

Some of us think ‘I’m never going to get old or that’s not going to happen to me.’ As Americans we plan for our future but we never plan to get old or have any kind of disability. Often people come into my office with a plan and say this is our last home we’re ever going to build and were going to die here. When I look at the plans, I can see that this is not the last place they’re ever going to live because when they get old, or if they fall and break a hip they’ll need a walker or wheelchair. That 3-story house cannot accommodate the need for such mobility issues because the bathroom door is only two-feet, four inches wide or there’s narrow hallways and tight corners. It’s no longer functional for the disability or aging-in-place factor.

I also try to sell people on visitability so that at least any – current or future possible – handicap parent, grandparent, relative or friend can come to the house and be comfortable. When you start talking about putting your mother or father in a nursing home after falling, or you may fall and injure your hip and you can’t stay in your 3-story house any longer, that’s where the living expenses skyrocket. For the expense of a $35-50,000 remodel to incorporate universal design, the same annual cost of an assisted living facility could be avoided. And this does happen. Ultimately, when you can incorporate a few small changes in your original design, you’ll circumvent those unwanted scenarios and be able to come home from the hospital to an accessible home, if the case may be.



The biggest challenge is people’s mindset about aging, becoming injured or getting a disability. Once I was at a home show and there was a guy there selling bathtubs with a door on them where you could get inside, close the door and fill it up. Two well-aged ladies go by, one with a cane, and they look at the bathtub, then each other and say, ‘I don’t need that.’ That was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen but it shows the mentality: ‘that’s only for old people and I’m not there.’ That’s the biggest challenge: people don’t plan to get old. All of our lives we are working to get to a point where we can retire but we don’t ever plan to get old. If there’s an acceptance of ‘I’m going to get old and I’m going to get old here,’ then we can start talking and understanding the other side of the fence: universal design.

A few statistics may give reason why universal design is going to trend more and pave a way for the accessible-home future:

• In America today, more than 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65;
• this year, 45 per¬cent of all households will have someone 55 years or older in the home; and
• according to an AARP survey, 90 percent of adults 50+ prefer to stay in their homes as long as possible.

We need to start making our housing design for those Baby Boomers, along with our disabled veterans and those with debilitating diseases. They need accessible and functional housing that gives them the opportunity to lead productive lives.

I don’t understand why more architects don’t designs homes with the universal design mentality in mind. In our market, over the last 13 years, I’ve built one home for a family with children living at home. Every other home that I’ve built has been for couples that are moving here to retire. A couple of years ago, we built a FabCab home. FabCab develops fabulous cabins and their architects are solely geared toward universal design. We also built a home with plans drawn from a local architect, so there are some designers on board with universal design, but not all; some are still designing houses on three floors, putting the master bedroom upstairs and the laundry room in the basement.


Everything about universal design is an advantage. Universal design is for anybody and everybody. Universal design incorporates things like better lighting because as we age our eyes get worse. Or more contrast between the countertops and the floor for better visibility. These are things we don’t think of as being important in building a new home, but as we get older they are important. I know my house is not very well lit and it bothers me now, but it didn’t faze me when I was 25 when I built it. Now I’m trying to get more light in there.

I have completed the CAPS (Certified Aging in Place Specialist) certification through the NAHB and that’s where I learned these universal design concepts. We go through the ailments commonly associated with aging, products to accommodate those needs, proper installation along with design techniques. It’s one of the best business decisions I’ve made. This has enabled me to look forward to universal design features that I didn’t recognize before, like easy access one-level living space, ramps and bars, lever handles and opening spaces like doorways, hallways, kitchens and bathrooms. In one of the bathrooms we did recently, we applied half-inch plywood then sheetrock over all of the walls so if the customer needs a grab bar, there’s backing for it. We don’t have to tear stuff apart and put in new framing to install a grab bar. It’s not the standard but it should be.

Universal design is not only for someone in a wheelchair. It’s for everybody. That’s why it’s called ‘universal.’ It’s an accessible and barrier-free design. It gives functionality, independence, and safety for everyone. Universal design features enable older adults to age in place and allow people with disabilities to remain involved in family and community life. It allows you to make your house a home for a lifetime.

Thanks for reading!

Keith Wilder's Contractor Corner blog is also published in article format in the monthly Silverado Express publication out of Colville, Washington.