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The old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” is especially true when it comes to Universal Design (UD). The National Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that one-third of home accidents could be prevented by modification and repair.

Based on the concept that all environments and products should be accessible and usable for people of all ages, sizes and abilities, Universal Design can be the difference between an elderly or handicapped person remaining in his or her life-long home or having to move to a new location that doesn’t limit his or her mobility.

James Kordonowy, designer with A&E Architects, has been incorporating Universal Design into homes for 17 years. He points to the standards that are required in commercial buildings as a start for consideration.

Think of the way you can walk into a public place—the door opens automatically—or the width of the doors and hallways. You can easily move about in a wheelchair, walker or even with a baby stroller, he said. There are no steps and all public restrooms have grab rails in the handicapped stalls. It is this ease of movement, of convenience, that is the basis for Universal Design.

Although the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards may be the most-commonly-known, Universal Design includes more details.

“It’s the little things that we don’t think about every day,” he said. “It’s being smart about common applications.”

To that end, Kordonowy points to a few key components, starting with stairways and steps. When he designs a home, he tries to eliminate all steps into the home from the street level—including that common “step up” from the garage into the mud room—by adjusting grade, truss placement and other engineering changes that happen on paper before the ground is even broken. This is not typical in most building projects, but having everything on the same level is crucial.

“Steps are a big issue,” he said. “So is accessibility and maneuverability. It is important that the homeowner doesn’t need to change levels simply to live.”

A simple step to the average person may be look like a mountain to a handicapped or otherwise physically impaired person.

Look into the future

Although most homeowners can easily navigate a simple step or shower curb every day, Kordonowy looks to the future and brings the aspect of universal design to the house.

We can’t look into a crystal ball, but planning now—incorporating Universal Design into the home as it is built—can save money and hassles later, he said.

For example, simply recessing the shower pan in the bath allows for a seamless, “no-curb” entry into a shower, thus eliminating a tripping hazard. And, by placing a block inside walls, as a house is built, for future grab bars in the tub or toilet area, a homeowner can easily have the grab bars installed years later if needed.

One trick that Kordonowy uses is to build what is basically a future elevator shaft. He includes the structure, support and electrical elements to later install the lift. In the meantime, the homeowners can use the space as closets for additional storage.

“The key is to design a home that you can age into,” said Kordonowy.”It’s not easy but having the foresight to think about what one’s life might be like 15 or 20 years from now will pay off later.”

Another mobility issue may be transitions between rooms or flooring types. Low or no-thresholds help homeowners avoid common tripping obstacles, and flooring choices may also come into play.

Smaller pieces

For existing houses, homeowners can make changes over time, as items wear out and need to be replaced, or when undergoing a remodeling project. For example, if a homeowner needs to replace a light switch, consider a “rocker” switch instead of the standard “toggle” switch because it is easier for smaller or impaired hands to flip the switch, Kordonowy suggests. The same is true for a lever-style door handle instead of the traditional knob style. Picture a service dog jumping up to pull down a lever handle, and the beauty of Universal Design becomes visually obvious.

In the bathroom, an 18- or 19-inch tall toilet stool with an elongated bowl makes it easier for the user to stand up, and level-style faucet fixtures are easier to turn than knob-styles. Showers with built-in benches and adjustable shower-heads give the users more mobility options.

Kitchen changes could include a step that pulls out from the toe kick—this helps everyone from children up to seniors. U-shaped handles on drawers and cabinets with adjustable heights increase usability. While standard countertop height is 36 inches, ADA standards are 34 inches. In addition, simply adding under cabinet task lighting helps brighten surfaces and assists those who may be visually impaired.

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The width of doorways and hallways is equally important, notes Kordonowy. A wheelchair takes a 5-foot diameter circle to make a 360-degree turn, and a 36-inch-wide door will accommodate a walker and wheelchair without scraping the user’s knuckles. In addition, many homeowners who have these wider spaces also benefit when doing simple household chores like carrying laundry baskets or even moving furniture in and out of the home.

Many of these simple Universal Design features are commonly seen in today’s newly-built homes and prove that function and form can easily co-exist in Universal Design.

Other aids

Sometimes existing homes need to be retro-fitted with tools to assist elderly and those will mobility or other issues.

Amy Rients, marketing manager of Juro’s Pharmacy Health and Wellness, notes that the store specializes in to help people remain independent as long as possible. She points to simple objects like reaching tools for those who are “vertically-challenged” to those in wheelchairs. Ramps come in various sizes and inclines, for those that eliminate minor threshold bumps, to those that cover several stairs. Safety belts and home alert systems are popular items, too.

In addition, exterior deck, bath and chair lifts provide a cost-effective alternative to expensive and labor-intensive renovations, she said. Juro’s also provides trained, certified mechanics to correctly install these items that will help many safely stay in their homes as long as possible. After-all, home is a very special place to be.

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