7 Design Secrets for a House You Can Live in Forever

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The words dream house may conjure up fantasy amenities and custom trims. But smart homeowners also imagine a home they can live in forever -- with a young family, through busy midlife, and with many of the common physical limitations that getting older can bring, from arthritis to needing a wheelchair.

Universal design (UD) is the design of products and environments that are usable by most people, regardless of their level of ability or disability, and at little or no extra cost. From entryways to kitchens and bathrooms to bedrooms, they often increase the value of a home. UD brings together the principles of accessible design (meeting standards for handicapped access, using "adaptable" design, meaning "normal"-looking design that can be revised later for disabled use), ergonomic design (allowing people and things to interact most effectively and safely), and green design (environmentally friendly spaces). UD is sometimes also called "lifespan design."

These seven principles, set out by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, a national resource and technical assistance center, help inform useful design for all ages and stages of life:

1. Design that's equally appealing to all users

What it means

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Wherever possible, universal design creates spaces that can be used by everyone equally and that are appealing to all. UD doesn't stigmatize any one group of users -- like those obvious wheelchair ramps tacked onto the fronts of older homes, for example.

What it looks like

  • At least one three-foot-wide, gently sloping, no-step entry -- meaning no porch step or tall threshold -- allows someone with a stroller, wheelchair, or walker to easily enter, without screaming "handicap entrance" to the mobile.

  • A lever-handled front door (as opposed to a round knob) can be a relief for sore or weak hands or anyone carrying packages, a baby, or a cane.

  • Mirrors placed where they can be seen from sitting and standing positions, such as a full-length or tilting mirror, mean you don't have to crane to see yourself.

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  • Having no changes in floor levels throughout the main level of the house increases safety and accessibility and helps eliminate tripping. That means a just-walking toddler or an older adult who shuffles or has balance trouble can maneuver around as smoothly as someone using an assistive device, like crutches or a walker. And healthy people are less likely to trip and spill what they're carrying.

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2. Flexible use

What it means

Good UD accommodates a wide range of preferences and abilities. This means it considers both lefties and righties, and those who move at different paces. It often allows for a variety of usages, as well.

What it looks like

  • Ideally, there should be least one bedroom and a full bathroom on the main floor, located away from living areas. It can serve as a study, craft room, or playroom early on, and as a bedroom when getting up stairs becomes difficult because of, for example, illness. There should also be a main-floor laundry room.

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  • Paddle-handled handles at the kitchen sink have already become the new standard because everyone finds them easier and more convenient. Handedness doesn't matter (nor does whether you have a free hand, if, say, you've been kneading dough and yours is flour-covered).

  • A small rolling cart based in the kitchen offers additional workspace wherever needed to save walking around.

  • Pull-out work boards near the stove, refrigerator, or counters add space to chop vegetables (and can be slid back after); ideally, there should be boards inset at different heights for users of different heights, or to use when seated or standing.

  • Pocket doors wherever possible provide flexibility and privacy, and give a sense of extra space because there's no door blocking anything.

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3. Simple and intuitive use

What it means

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UD makes things easy to figure out, regardless of cognitive functioning, language, literacy, experience or know-how. Unnecessary complexity is out.

What it looks like

  • D-shaped drawer pulls are easy to grasp and pull open.

  • Smart shower handles move in one obvious way from hot to cold and don't require three different maneuvers to get the water to flow at the desired temperature.

  • Adjustable shelving is easy to customize, so that you can store the tall milk and ketchup where you prefer. Installing lazy Susans makes constructive use of wasted corner cupboard space (because who can reach far back into a corner cupboard?).

4. Presents essential information clearly

What it means

Any information that needs to be conveyed to the user is done using a variety of methods (sensory, pictorial, tactile) so even someone with limitations can manage it.

What it looks like

  • Keyless locks use a remote control or keypad that's user-friendly.

  • Universally designed appliance controls feature obvious symbols and colors in addition to words to clarify instructions (such as red for hot and blue for cold).

  • A circuit-breaker panel that's on the main floor (as opposed to out in the garage) can be easier to access; all the circuits should be clearly labeled for the area they serve, perhaps with a coded floor plan as well as written area names.

  • Smoke detectors and carbon-monoxide alarms should ideally provide both audible and visual signals.

More design secrets for a house you can live in forever

5. Allows for user errors

What it means

UD tries to imagine the potential problems and then eliminates them or isolates or shields the user from them. The design itself anticipates the dangers and discourages unconscious unsafe use.

What it looks like

  • Handrails on both sides of the staircase give support to a frail older adult, a sick younger one, or anyone carrying loads of laundry.

  • A curbless shower stall prevents accidental trips and also allows wheelchair access. A slightly sloping floor aids drainage and cleanup.

  • Grab bars securely anchored to the structure of the walls in shower/bath/toilet areas ensure stability when moving in and out. They can double as towel bars.

  • Floor surfaces in bathrooms and showers are made of no-slip materials, such as tiles with some texture. Carpeting should be low-pile and tightly woven, such as Berber-style carpets.

  • A spring-loaded switch for the garbage disposal that must be held in the "on" position while it's running minimizes fingers or forks accidentally getting caught.

  • Contrasting edging on the front of counters telegraphs the edge to someone with lower vision, to avoid spills and bumps. Corners should be rounded, not sharp.

More design secrets for a house you can live in forever

6. Requires low physical effort

What it means

Things should be easy to use: efficient, comfortable, and requiring minimal effort. You shouldn't have to contort yourself or use a lot of physical force.

What it looks like

  • Rocker-panel light switches can be easily flipped with a fist or an elbow (unlike standard toggle switches) if you're carrying something and don't have fingers free.

  • Switches and controls are placed at easy-to-use heights, more convenient to more people than the standard placements. UD favors light switches that are 42 to 48 inches from the floor, thermostat controls that are about 48 inches off the floor, and electrical outlets and phone jacks that are 18 to 24 inches off the floor.

  • Mounting kitchen outlet and garbage disposal controls on the counter makes them handier than in their customary, hard-to-reach position at the sink backsplash.

  • Raised, front-loading washers, dryers, and dishwashers don't require stooping or reaching.

More design secrets for a house you can live in forever

7. Appropriate size and space for use, regardless of body size or mobility

What it means

No matter what your body size, posture, or level of functioning, you should be able to approach, reach, and manipulate objects easily. There should also be sufficient space for someone who needs to use adaptive devices, such as wheelchairs or walkers.

What it looks like

  • An open, spacious floor plan with five-and-a-half foot hallways (instead of the usual four-foot) looks modern and inviting while it accommodates strollers, walkers, and wheelchairs when and if they're needed.

  • A variety of work surface heights, such as countertops that are low in some places along the perimeter and higher in a center island, works for a user who's sitting on a tall stool or low chair, or standing. This is friendlier for family members of differing heights, too.

  • Fold-back doors under the cooking island permit knee space for those who need to use a stool or a wheelchair.

  • A wall-mounted sink with open space beneath loses some common storage but gains access for a wheelchair, especially when the drain is positioned at the back, not in the middle.

  • Raised or adjustable toilet seats comfortably accommodate those with back, hip, or knee problems or those who have problems with balance.

  • A molded seat in the shower stall can look attractive and modern; it's as handy for a woman shaving her legs or shampooing a small child as for a senior being assisted in the bath.


over 1 year ago, said...

Some ideas I had not considered for UD remodeling. Another article might be about adjustments to living in an older home that may be harder to remodel, such as in a historic home.


over 1 year ago, said...

Just don't know why new homes builders don't care about any of these. All new homes usually have 4-5 steps entrance these days.


over 1 year ago, said...

I just read the comment by the person whose friend has to go up three flights of stairs to get into his apartment. A builder in Texas recently offered houses that are "green," and all of them have long flights of stairs leading to the outside doors and lots of interior stairs to make sure the house has a small footprint. I wrote to the magazine that published the story and said it was obvious the builders did not want handicapped people to move in. The editor wrote me back and said she hadn't thought of that but I was clearly right. Surely such homes violate the Americans with Disabilities Act!


over 1 year ago, said...

Very helpful consolidation of suggestions for every room in the house. I was particularly impressed by the suggestion that the halls be 5 1/2 feet wide. I have a 4-foot hallway with books stacked along one wall. With my wheelchair, I often hit one of the piles of books and then have to lean way over to pile them up again. Our builder put in the right kind of doorways and door handles, but he didn't think of the width of the hallway, and it's too late to fix it now.


about 2 years ago, said...

What about clothing for seniors. I am a senior. I have trouble with small buttons on my clothes. It is hard for me to button my clothes because the button holes and buttons are so small. What about jewelry. Ear Rings are hard for me to put into my ears. The clasps are too small for me handle and put into the holes in my ears. These problems can go on with many things for seniors trying to look nice but they can't because things are not suited for us seniors to cope with. Help seniors with easier ways to be able to dress ourselves without the help of someone having to do it for us. Thank you.


over 2 years ago, said...

This article is absolutely great! When I retire and move, it gives me lots of information on how best to choose a home to 'age in place'.


over 2 years ago, said...

Can you make your print size larger or adjustable fo iPad use. Please


over 2 years ago, said...

Thank-you. I feel that these handy ideas should actually be included in universal standard building regulations. The Wegs


over 2 years ago, said...

If a person can take comfort knowing that the decisions he made in an earlier stage of his life are approved and suggested even for new construction, then I take that comfort. I was never a runner, but I have a friend in the Midwest that was an avid jogger. He bought a condo in a vintage 30's building that has a three floor walk-up entrance, no elevator, and when in his apartment there are no bathrooms on the main floor. Both bathrooms are yet another flight of stairs up are the two bedrooms. When I think of how many trips I sometimes make from my car to my kitchen with groceries or other purchases, I reflect on making those trips while climbing three flights of stairs. My friend recently wrote to say he's trying to find an apartment that's all on one floor in an elevator building. He keeps finding them, but he needs to sell his current apartment to be able to afford them. No one seems to want an apartment with what amounts to a four story walk up, all things considered. When I moved to my current home, I moved from that one level condo in an elevator building to a one story home that has all the features your article described, except the width of the hallways. Since I live alone, a bypass in the halls isn't necessary. I'm also not physically handicapped, as yet, but it's comforting to think that I won't have to move should that unfortunate fate befall me. Robert C. Visconti


over 2 years ago, said...

Ideas for my dream house . . . should I live that long!


over 2 years ago, said...

This article summarizes many of the key points emphasized in universal design. When I bought a house recently, I specifically looked for a house that could be converted to UD principles if needed. My choice is a house that was built in 1950 and is less than 1000 square feet. The most important features were the kitchen, hallway and closets! My house does not have a dining room (a drawback) but the kitchen is 14 feet by 12 feet and can accommodate a manual wheelchair if necessary without any changes. (A minimum 5' turning radius is required.) A galley kitchen is usually almost impossible to renovate for UD, especially if the gas, water and drains are in a concrete slab. While it can be done, it is prohibitively expensive. The current hallway to the bedrooms and bathroom is only 36" wide, but the walls are not weight bearing. The bathroom is flanked by bedroom closets on either side, so if it is necessary to expand the bathroom in the future, the linen closet and one bedroom closet can be sacrificed without having to change the water supply or drains. The sink, toilet and tub/shower can stay where they are. One or more walls can be moved a few inches to create a wider hallway, bigger bathroom and wider doorways as needed. None of the utilities will need to be moved. If I get a surprise and one of the walls is a bearing wall, a beam can be inserted overhead. This is still much less expensive than building a new addition, or completely remodeling a bathroom or kitchen. When I was looking at houses with my agent, I always took a measuring tape, notebook and camera with me. I measured doorways and hallways and the floor space in the kitchen. Almost all bathrooms were small (5'X8') but I looked for one where all the fixtures were on one wall. I made simple sketches of the floor plans and I made sure to include the closets on my sketches. I also paid attention to the slope of the roof because that is a simple way to figure out which walls are likely to be bearing walls. (Rafters run one way and bearing walls generally run the other way, at least in a square or rectangular house.) With my notes and sketches I was able to determine how difficult--and how expensive--modifying the house would be in the future.


over 2 years ago, said...

A good checklist of features.


over 2 years ago, said...

Thanks for a helpful summary of good design principles and practices. 2 additions to the kitchen items on page 2: "Pull-out work boards ..." does not say whether cutting is done directly on whatever is pulled out. Direct cutting would raise the issue of cleaning. A board easily removed for cleaning might be accidentally removed at an awkward time. My kitchen work surface is table height rather than counter height. I repurposed an office chair on casters to let me sit at the work surface and then slide to the frige w/o getting up. 2 additions to the bathroom items on page 6: "A wall-mounted sink with open space beneath ..." also makes it much easier to replace a faucet or fix a leak and then clean up afterward. Arm rails installed on both sides of the toilet have other uses besides helping people with difficulty rising from the throne. If U want to read or must do a little desk work, U can support a convenient surface (such as a medium-sized bulletin board) on 3 points: 1 from each arm rail and 1 from a laundry hamper or high stool.


over 2 years ago, said...

Very helpful for me, but wait for my wife's reaction when I put this to her!


about 3 years ago, said...

Re: putting electric outlets higher up on walls--this is useful not only for older people or people w/disablities who have trouble bending down, but also for the parents of young children who want to "childproof" their homes. They don't HAVE to be ugly--this is a design and decor problem, too bad if you're too lazy to bother working on it.


about 3 years ago, said...

I really appreciate so many aspects to this article. What the article did not mentioned is that color can also play an important role not only in design, but in function as well. Having interior doors that are a contrasting color that you go through, vs colors that blend in to the wall color for areas that are storage as an example. I also suggest a bright color for the main entrance vs, a door that blends in with the siding if you do not want the general public to use that as an entrance. More importantly it helps to have colors in the rooms you spend the most time in to be more pleasant and soothing. Having chosen colors for people of all ages I find the colors for older clientele are seen as more muted, so choosing colors that are a little brighter is generally preferred. I often use the Color911 app, its a great tool for choosing the right colors. I have shown colors to people and asked what they liked.. then took my iPhone or iPad to the paint store to match the color. It is a great tool for experimenting with colors before you commit to any color scheme. Choosing the right color for anyplace you will be spending time is of great importance!


about 3 years ago, said...

all on one page would be nice. Slideshows are for slides!


about 3 years ago, said...

1. No stairs or sunken rooms. My elderly father became a prisoner in his own house when he lost his mobility and balance. 2. Wide passageways; halls and doors need to fit walkers and powered scooters. The newer 12' ceilings in home design and subsequent 8' high doors (instead of the standard 6'8" doors) mask that wider 3' doors are in every opening, including bathrooms. 3. Curbless, roll-in shower -- and for the truly forward-planning, a toilet in the shower. Once having gone through the effort of getting to the bathroom, have the ability to clean yourself completely with a hand shower. 4. Garage with enough room to swing the car or specialty van door open and get to the walker/wheelchair on level ground (perhaps with grab posts positioned for sure stability) -- and then be able to enter the house unimpeded by any steps or high thresholds. 5. Controls for lights, TV, phone, drapes, HVAC and other niceties that are easy to use and see. 6. A "casita" -- a functionally separate living space once called a "mother-in-law" room -- that has a kitchenette, bathroom, sleeping and living area, and its own entey from outside. Can be physically separate from the main house (like a converted garage) or attached to the main house. This can be for an elderly family member, but is more useful for your future live-in younger hired assistant. The goal is to live in your own house regardless of physical need and to AVOID AT ALL COSTS moving into a convalescent hospital, where you will be ignored, driven insane, starved and exposed to the myriad diseases of other inmates, all for a mere $339 PER DAY (in 2013 dollars). To live in your own house you will need a live-in assistant. That person will be a lot easier to attract and hold if they have free rent and a nice, private living space. If you build it, they will come. Bottom line: you need a single level ranch style home with no stairs, wide doors, maneuverable bathrooms and kitchen and a living space for your helper who will be paid for by your own private eldercare insurance. The alternative is to throw yourself on the mercy of IRS death panels.


over 3 years ago, said...

Well done. Very useful suggestions, timing is perfect as I am currently taking time to prepare my home. Good minds think alike! I love my house and while finances are continuous and health is good, I'm preparing. Thank you for this article..... I know with better confidence, that I'm not "preparing for the worst", I'm on the right track :).