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7 Design Secrets for a House You Can Live in Forever

By , Caring.com contributing editor
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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

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.

  • 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.

  • 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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.