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Universal Design Homes Mandan ND

Experts are trying to transcend the common images of unattractive handlebars in a bathroom or the wheelchair-accessible house with an exterior ramp that makes for an inconsistent appearance in a neighborhood. Instead, they are focusing on the aesthetic appeal of universal design, as well as the versatility of products and residential designs.

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Designing for the Generations

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Karl Brown stands 6 feet 3 inches tall and is left-handed. He does not consider himself to have special needs, yet in common daily scenarios he’s had to learn to become ambidextrous to efficiently complete certain tasks. He can’t golf with traditional clubs. He finds can openers and scissors difficult to use because they are intrinsically designed for right-handed users. And on flights he must pay extra to sit in the emergency exit row, so his long legs aren’t too cramped.

Brown exemplifies many people who could benefit from a wider implementation of universal design, a concept that essentially would standardize the design of products and houses to provide better accessibility. It would benefit people of all sizes, ages and physical capacities. It’s especially relevant today because of the rising number of baby boomers, who are entering their 60s. But universal design is not merely design made for when life gets tough; it’s also useful for preventative measures.

Form Follows Function
A wheelchair-bound architect, educator and advocate named Ronald L. Mace (1941-1998) coined the term universal design, which he described as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” Mace founded The Center for Universal Design, at the School of Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, to help promote his concept of a universally usable world.

Several commonly heard phrases and terms lie under the umbrella of universal design, including aging in place, barrier-free design, accessible design, assistive technology, human-centered design and ergonomics. At its simplest, universal design embodies the concept of “form follows function,” popularized by modernist architect Louis Sullivan as well as by his assistant, Frank Lloyd Wright.

While universal design can affect people in a number of different areas of daily life, it’s particularly relevant in the home. In fact, as it gains acceptance and becomes a natural occurrence rather than the afterthought it is today, universal design can result in homes that will be easily accessible to several generations of homeowners, at different stages of life, with little or no modification.

Let’s say a single person buys a house and soon gets married; initially, the home is only marginally altered to meet the young couple’s needs. But once children enter the picture, the bedrooms, bathrooms, hallways and kitchen/dining area will be used differently, requiring the home to be altered more significantly, and it will continue to be altered in changing ways as the children grow.

The home might go through a series of changes during other stages in the couple’s life: when they become empty nesters, when they retire and entertain grandchildren, and in their twilight days when they’re spending time with great-grandchildren.

“That’s actually the Japanese system,” says Joel May, principal of Joel May Architecture in Sarasota, Fla., and president of the American Institute of Architects Florida Gulf Coast chapter. “They buy a house thinking they’ll be in it for generations.”

The User-Friendly Home
So what needs to be done to create a home that’s friendlier to generations of occupants? Experts are trying to transcend the common images of unattractive handlebars in a bathroom or the wheelchair-accessible house with an exterior ramp that makes for an inconsistent appearance in a neighborhood. Instead, they are focusing on the aesthetic appeal of universal design, as well as the versatility of products and residential designs. Some of the more common manifestations of universal design in the home include:

• Wider hallways and doors to accommodate those who might be in wheelchairs later in life

• Lower countertops in the bathrooms and kitchens

• Lowered light switches and thermostats

• Zero-entry pools and spas

• The inclusion of elevators in the home.

In a universally designed kitchen, for example, ovens are located at eye level, refrigerators have bottom-drawer-like freezers and cabinet placement is configured to allow walkability when several cabinet doors are simultaneously opened.
In the bathroom, sinks have knee space beneath for wheelchair accessibility, and faucets are equipped with simple handles that occupants can pull up to turn on the flow of water and push down to turn it off. In the shower, plumbing fixtures are designed to be easily lowered or raised on a sliding bar (this works especially well for those well above or below average height). Roll-in showers enable wheelchair-bound occupants to transfer to a simple chair, often hinged to an interior bar. Walk-in bathtubs have a panel through which the user enters and then closes to make the tub watertight.
And throughout the universally designed house are clean materials such as terrazzo or stone or wood floors, which require less maintenance and less need for replacement over time.

Ramesh Gulatee, principal of Lincolnshire, Ill.-based LifeCare Design Studio, suggests more optimally located light, phone and power access spots to accommodate the changing needs of homeowners, and the inclusion of electronic buttons so those who are elderly or frail can easily open doors. The latter, he notes, would also be helpful to a homeowner trying to open a door while carrying armloads of groceries.

Examples of Universal Design
Many homeowners may be surprised to learn that their own homes already contain universally designed elements. Most of these elements are commonly found in the kitchen and bathroom, though they can also appear elsewhere in the home. Easily operable windows and large-print materials that ease reading are often found around the house, for example. Solar light tubes and skylights are also considered universal design components, as they provide natural light in the home. This is an important element in the home, since to function adequately, we require twice as much light at 60 years of age as we do when we’re 40, according to Valerie Fletcher, executive director of Boston-based Adaptive Environments (soon to be known as the Institute for Human Centered Design), who spoke at Build Boston’s universal design symposium in November.

Home automation is emerging as a part of universal design, notes May. “It’s expensive [now] but it allows people who are in wheelchairs or bed-bound to control their environment. They can turn off lights, change the thermostat, check security cameras and more,” she explains. That ability to better control their surroundings gives homeowners confidence — a secondary goal of universal design.

At the symposium, Fletcher offered an example of universal interior architecture that serves the needs of specific homeowners while giving them more confidence in their control over their environment. In one home, a deaf couple with two hearing children fitted the interior walls with a number of aesthetically appealing openings. These openings enable the couple to keep an eye on their children when they’re playing out of sight in areas of the home where parents would otherwise rely on their hearing. This, she says, represents an example of the “tolerance for error” principle of universal design (see sidebar), and gives the homeowners confidence because they have more control over their environment.

Universal design is becoming increasingly imperative as greater numbers of baby boomers enter their later years and as the number of people with disabilities rises. As of 2007, there were about 35 million people older than 65 years of age in the United States and about 77 million baby boomers, some of whom have recently started turning 60, according to Fletcher. (On a related note, physical limitations rise significantly between 45 and 54 years of age.) In addition, between 49 and 54 million people are coping with some type of disability. These numbers obviously point to the need for universal design in our homes and other areas of our lives.

Ergonomics and the Home
Ergonomics is a branch of universal design that focuses on preventative measures by designing products and systems that reduce fatigue and discomfort. “[Homeowners] work at the kitchen table or other furniture but they don’t think about the long-term effect on their bodies,” says Manuel Saez, formerly a designer with Humanscale, a New York City-based design studio that produces ergonomically designed home office furniture. “Eventually it’s going to get to you. A couple hours a day is enough to create trouble for your body. It’s important to understand how people work and what
are the physical tendencies. Ergonomic furniture addresses that need.”

In the context of a home office, say, ergonomics has gained some publicity over the past decade. As more and more people work for several hours daily from a cramped home office space or computer station, it becomes more imperative to implement ergonomic products and systems.

Of course, not all home offices are alike. Some are simple workspaces such as a kitchen table with a personal computer; others contain a full suite of office furniture and space for visiting clients. For most it’s the former, which is why it’s imperative for homeowners to pay attention to how they treat their bodies. It’s also a good idea to take a look at ergonomic furniture such as that designed by Humanscale.

At first sight, ergonomic home office furniture is often indistinguishable from other types of furniture. The sleek, contemporary aesthetics give no immediate indication of the ergonomics built into the design, but within minutes homeowners recognize how well it’s designed to meet their needs. The more ergonomic efficiency a home office has, the less bothersome carpal tunnel syndrome, back problems or vision problems will be in the future.

While universal design has risen to assist more than the disabled and the aging populations, experts agree the concept needs to be more widely implemented, so it helps improve not only the lives of those with sensory, visual or hearing ailments, but also those with different needs such as Brown’s. For now, Brown is planning to try out a new pair of universally designed scissors. But he’ll still have to deal with a pesky can opener and duck under low doors.

Nichole L. Reber writes regularly about space planning, from interior design to land use. She’s based in Sarasota, Fla.

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