Applying Universal Design Concepts

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By Michael Leite, P.E.

Universal design has been defined as building environments that are accessible by anyone regardless of their physical limitations or disabilities.  Much of the universal design concept has been codified in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.  In practice most situations involve the retrofitting of an existing space with all of its limitations rather than the construction of a new space in which the designer has an empty palette.

In the retrofit situation, the design must accommodate the specific needs and disabilities of the intended occupant rather than meeting the needs of the general population.  In this way the impact on the existing structure is minimized and the project is more affordable.

The first consideration is mobility.  This involves the selection of flooring that allows the resident to move about easily without tripping and falling.  It also includes the installation of grab bars in strategic locations that enable residents to get-up and down and maintain their balance.  In the case of major renovations, the installation of an elevator or stair-lift.

The second consideration is lighting.  Individuals with low vision require special task lighting in addition to quality general illumination.  A thorough analysis determines both the amount of light and the best color qualities of the light source.  Each individual is different with respect to the optimum light source, the necessary light levels and the effect of veiling luminance or glare.

The third consideration is the bathroom.  Having addressed the issue of mobility, we now turn to the selection of fixtures and controls.  The installation of a comfort height toilet with an integral bidet function can facilitate personal hygiene.    The shower and bath tub should have controls that are accessibly placed and control all of the functions.  Other fixtures, like the sink, should allow residents to move about freely.

The fourth consideration is the kitchen.  Appliances must be selected to facilitate their use by individuals with physical limitations.  This includes both the major appliances (stove, refrigerator and dishwasher) and the portable appliances (can opener, coffee maker and garbage can).  The design must consider the work-flow in the kitchen as well as personal safety.

The fifth consideration is the general living space.  Here the use of sensors, remote controls and alarms can ensure the comfort, ease of use and safety of the residents.  Similarly, the selection of furnishings and surface treatments must be based on the needs and comfort of the individual.

Companies like M. Quinn Designs, Inc. with its term Beautiful Accessibility?, design to accommodate the needs of clients.  The goal is to make the modifications blend into the design and not appear to be a noticeable add-on.  Also, the accessible design should be fully functional for both the client as well as for individuals without disabilities.

Reprinted with Permission of M. Quinn Designs, Inc.

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