Smart Design With Suzette: Universal Design

Courtesy/Suzette Fox
Smart Design with Suzette
Universal Design
A few days ago my uncle died. My cousin was telling me how my uncle was restricted to a hospital bed in his home for years before he died. This got me thinking about the need for Universal Design. If you haven’t heard of it yet, you will in the future.

Universal design, originally aimed at creating easily accessible spaces for individuals with physical disabilities, has evolved into the design of functional, stylish spaces that make life easier for anyone, regardless of age, size or ability.

Universal design is moving to the forefront as baby boomers purchase homes with their retirement years in mind. Homes that incorporate universal design elements allow residents to age-in-place. In other words, those who live in a home with these special features will be just as comfortable today as they will be down the road, as their needs and abilities change with age.

Think of it as a design insurance policy. The best time to do it is before you develop significant health or mobility issues.

Things To Think About

The first thing to think about is how long you will live in your home. If it’s your forever home, then keep aging-in-place in mind when updating kitchens, etc. Seek out a certified professional with experience in renovations using universal design elements.

Although I love my home, it cannot be my forever home. It has stairs. Stairs and aging do not go together. Since I’ve lived in my home, every family member has fallen down the stairs. This is not good. A one story home is the right choice.


A no-step entry is very important to have. At least one entrance should be one-level so everyone, including a person in a wheelchair or walker, can enter.

Widened Doors, Pocket Doors and Hallways

Doorways should be 36” wide and hallways should be 42” wide to accommodate wheelchairs. Pocket Doors are great because they don’t open in or out allowing easy entrance and exit – to and from rooms.

Courtesy/Suzette Fox

Controls, Switches and Lever Door Handles

When modifying your home, consider the height of light switches and thermostats. These should be 42-48 inches above the floor for ease of reach considering people in a wheelchair. Electrical outlets should be 18–24 inches off the floor.

Lever door handles and rocker light switches are great for people with poor hand strength or when your arms are full of groceries.

Courtesy/Suzette Fox

Kitchen and Baths

These are the two areas that are key to aging-in-place. Using drawers instead of base cabinets, having an open space for knees, and varying countertop heights are essential. Baths are similar in design. Showers should have no-threshold, have a grab bar and offer seating.


Thresholds should be flush with the floors so wheelchairs can easily pass between rooms and is not a tripping hazard for others.


Courtesy/Suzette Fox


Good lighting helps everyone see well. Include all types of lighting – ambient, task and accent. Ambient lighting provides overall illumination like a ceiling fixture. Task lighting helps perform tasks like reading or cooking with table lamps and under-cabinet lighting. Accent lighting creates visual impact. Examples are wall-mounted picture lights or recessed lighting directed to a wall, drapes, artwork, etc.

For a more information, visit the National Association of Home Builders website at Resources for funding home modifications are also available at

Feel free to contact Los Alamos Interior Designer Suzette Fox to suggest specific design topics or for help with your home. For more information, find her on Facebook at and her website

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