Universal Design

Universal Design

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Universal Design

by Samantha Sannella

As our population ages and diversifies, demand on design professionals is growing. The following is an abbreviated checklist for applying Universal Design concepts to your solutions.

Lighting and Electricity

As we age, we need approximately 30% more light to see clearly. Provide an increased number of electrical outlets for extra lighting — especially in bedrooms. Mount electrical outlets at 18″ AFF and switches 48″ AFF. At bedside tables, mount outlets at nightstand height. Consider sourcing lighting that uses the same type of light bulb — ideally an LED one to minimize changing them.

In addition to good quality general lighting in the kitchen, under cabinet task lighting is very important.


I cannot overstate the importance of non-slip flooring. While we all love a polished marble entry, an Ontario winter with muddy boots can cause a slip and fall accident. The bathroom is a frequent site of injuries; consequently non-slip flooring is important here as well. Mosiacs can work well in this situation. Between rooms, minimize the threshold as much as possible. Thresholds are difficult to navigate for persons in wheelchairs and with limited mobility. Moreover, carpet can be difficult for wheelchairs and area rugs must be secured thoroughly as they present a trip hazard.


When designing kitchens, ensure that appliances are easily operable and intuitive. Too many options can create problems! Easy to read controls are a must. Make sure that a high level of contrast is provided. Controls should also be glare free. Ergonomic controls that are easy to operate without hand strength are a must.

Induction cooktops are great. They only work via the magnetic connection between the cooktop and pot so when the pot is removed, the heat goes off. A ‘lock-out’ feature is a good addition that prevents children from accidentally turning the appliances on. When sourcing an oven, ensure that the racks are easy to remove and clean. Fail-safe features, such as automatic shut off, is great for cooktops, ovens and other appliances that can overheat.

Appliances that beep and or flash when on or opened are good for all of us, but especially the aged or those with children.

Ovens present a big problem for people without strength. I highly recommend a wall mounted oven rather than a range, as it is easier to control the height and hence, the lift strength needed to place and remove food. As well, a microwave with easy access to a shelf nearby is a good solution. Kitchen cabinets with knee space under sink or cooktop is a great idea. Additionally, an area where food preparation can be performed from a seated position is desirable.

Bottom mounted or side-by-side freezers are a better solution that the top mounted freezer, however, an ideal solution would be a separate fridge and freezer (both full width and height).

Dishwashers with top of door controls are an issue for people with limited visibility. They look great, but can be very difficult to read. When sourcing dishwashers, low decibel dishwashers are good for people with hearing impairments as background noises interfere with hearing aids.


Bar type pulls are much easier for persons with limited strength and touch-latch opening mechanisms are great options for everyone. It’s a good idea to offer a variety of storage options that are easily accessible. Shelves that roll out and drawers that are easy to pull are good options for all of us. No one really wants to get down on their knees to rummage through kitchen cabinets! For those pesky corners, Magic Corners that pull out and make use of all the space are truly a wonderful invention. There are many new and useful storage options available, included mechanized inserts that lower and raise shelves for upper cabinetry.


The best option for showers is curb-less with sliding doors. Swing doors are harder to maneuver around for the elderly or disabled people. It is always good to provide a vanity cabinet with knee space underneath. Suggest to your contractor to broadly applied blocking around inside walls, toilets, tubs and showers for grab bar installation. There are many new grab bars on the market that don’t look institutional.

Offset shower controls to avoid burning, bending, reaching and stretching. Under the showerhead is not ideal, as hot or cold water may shock the person. As always, anti-scald shower devices on plumbing fixtures are desirable.

Lever faucets in the kitchen and bath are a must. People with limited hand strength (this includes children) find circular dial type handles very difficult.

When renovating, it is common sense to put shut off valves at W/D, sinks and toilets; however, I still encounter many homes that don’t have them. This is a MUST! Relatively new on the North American market are toilet/bidet combination units or toilets that can include a washlet. I highly recommend these, as they make life much easier for people with limited mobility, broken limbs, aging population, illness, etc. And, as always, a 17″ or comfort height toilet is recommended. Especially useful is a wall-mounted toilet, as these make cleaning the floor a breeze.

Laundry Rooms

When planning laundry rooms, front loading machines with front mounted controls are preferred. Pedestal bases are preferable to raise the height. A nearby area for folding clothes and managing laundry is desirable, as is a place to hang-dry clothes.

Using Common Sense

Ease of Use, Size and Space for Approach of Use, Flexibility, Simple and Intuitive are established principles of Universal Design. However, a good dose of common sense will go a long way. Does it work for a child? Aging person? Would it work if you were pregnant? Or had a broken arm? When planning a renovation or new construction, ask yourself about the phases of your life and think forward to what you might require.

SAMANTHA SANNELLA, BFA ID, M ARCH, is a designer, educator and principal at Urban Retreat Homes and an internationally renowned expert in the field of design and architecture. She is a columnist for RENO&DECOR magazine and editor of the Ontario Design Trade Sourcebook.



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