Universal design principles can aid all, including aging adults and those with disabilities, K-State expert says
By Erinn Barcomb-Peterson
As our bodies change over the years, our homes don't always keep up.
But it doesn't have to be that way, as Kansas State University is showing by embracing the universal design concept in its interior design program. By making small or large changes, older adults can make their homes more safe and more convenient, and others can make their homes more usable for older family members and friends who visit, according to a K-State universal design expert.
Universal design can be defined as designing for most people most of the time; in other words, designs that accommodate people with varying physical abilities, said Migette Kaup, a K-State associate professor of interior design.
Universal design is usable by people of all ages and abilities without special adjustments or changes, and it's not just for the handicapped. Universal design was born out of the movement to make life better for people with disabilities. But as people experience age-related changes, more older adults are joining the growing market for universally designed products and environments, Kaup said.
As adults age, they often use their space differently or they change their lifestyles, according to Kaup.
"People change their behaviors or they change their house," she said. "If you have someone who is trying to age in a multistory home, it can be challenging. Some seniors will relocate the master bedroom to the first floor. Basically, they will close off the upstairs to major activities."
Applying universal design principles as you age can be as simple as applying stronger window coverings to filter or block light for sensitive eyes or changing the type of lightbulbs you use, Kaup said. She suggests replacing incandescent bulbs with energy-efficient and long-lasting florescent bulbs.
"It may sound like an unrelated thing, but the fewer times you have to get on a stepladder to change that bulb, the better off you are," she said.
Such simple, cost-effective changes demonstrate some of the tenets of good universal design -- simplicity and affordability. For instance, Kaup suggests making heavy items in the kitchen easier to reach by investing in an inexpensive lazy Susan.
"You don't have to knock down a few walls to make things more comfortable," she said.
More elaborate universal design principles can be integrated into remodeling or construction projects, Kaup said. This can mean building countertops that are lower and have a higher toe-kick, making it easier for someone using a wheelchair to get around a kitchen or bathroom, or installing clocks, thermostats and appliance controls with large, raised numbers and letters.
"If you're doing major remodeling, it's always wise to think about how it might be a little more user-friendly," Kaup said. "It's smart if you do a little homework and, if you can, get a designer who has knowledge of universal design principles."
Because universal design strives to make the environment user-friendly, it is easy to figure out and doesn't puzzle the people trying to use it. For instance, a person shouldn't have to wonder how to use a mobile vanity sink that adjusts to accommodate someone using a wheelchair -- the "up" and "down" buttons should be easy to spot.
People who don't need special accommodations because of age or disability can not only use universal design, but they can like it, too.
"It doesn't have to look like it's been designed for someone in a wheelchair, for instance," Kaup said. "Designs can be accessible without looking institutional."
Universal design should be as attractive as it is usable; good universal design actually is invisible, Kaup said.
Besides making a home more livable for the people who actually live there, universal design also encourages homes to be built to accommodate visitors who are older adults or who otherwise have special needs, Kaup said. This can mean a first-floor bathroom in which a wheelchair can fit for guests who don't want to leave early because they can't use the home's bathroom. Kaup said homes that have a ground-level entrance and thresholds that accommodate a wheelchair can make everyone feel included.
"If you can't go and visit someone if you use a wheelchair or a walker, then that limits your social contact," she said.
Photos: (Top) An example of bathroom design from K-State's universal design laboratory. (Bottom) An example of kitchen design. Photos by Erinn Barcomb-Peterson.