Home Intelligence Series—Part 5

Universal Design is all about adapting to change

Every survey suggests, as does common sense, that aging Americans overwhelmingly prefer to stay in their homes and live independently for as long as they can. Whether that’s possible depends, in part, on whether their home has been built or remodeled to incorporate universal design features.

What exactly is Universal Design? Think of your body as synonymous with your home. As we age certain joints begin to show wear. We ache in places we never used to. And so to keep doing the things we love we make adjustments, take medication, add supports, braces and so forth. Think of Universal Design as a way of adjusting the home to accommodate the changing abilities of the homeowner to move about safely and securely. While aging is the primary driver of change for people, accidents and disease can suddenly change the lifestyle and needs of occupants.

Prior to a complete universal design make over this senior homeowner struggled through daily tasks

Owner John Murphy with client in her new home crafted with universal design principles.

If your home wasn’t conceived with Universal Design in mind have no worries. Any home can be remodeled and updated with “aging in place” elements. In fact, smart homeowners consider all remodeling improvements with aging in mind, regardless of where they are in life—even if they may not plan to stay in the home throughout their golden years. Why? Because Universal Design principles make homes comfortable and safe for people of all ages and abilities, there is no downside to starting early.

Don’t get the wrong idea about Universal Design. While it ensures accessibility and security for people using wheelchairs and walkers, it no longer has the institutional look of early handicap accessible designs. Functionality can also (should also) be aesthetically pleasing to the eye.

Curbless shower example of universal design provides access to all

Murphy Bros. owner John Murphy, suggest one of the first aging in place adaptations to look at is the elimination of elements that could cause falls or limit accessibility such as uneven floor transitions, dim lighting, narrow doorways and high microwave ovens.

Murphy Bros.’ Certified Aging In Place Specialist (CAPS), Cherie Poissant, encourages homeowners to consider surfaces and features that will be easier to clean and maintain, such as a non-wood deck or low maintenance siding. She also urges clients to explore ways to make space more flexible so it can respond to changing needs, such as a main level room and full bath that can be used for a home office or guest quarters. “Weigh the payback from upgrades that reduce ongoing energy costs, such as insulation and Energy Star rated appliances and lighting. And take advantage of smart technology that enables you to monitor and control systems remotely so you are free to travel and enjoy life,” suggests Poissant.

Additional natural light improves conditions for aging homeowners with glaucoma or cataracts

Below is an extensive checklist of universal design/aging in place features. As a leading design-build general contractor, Murphy Bros. is always available to offer you expert insights into each of these features and what makes sense for you and your home.


  • Low-maintenance shrubs and plants
  • Deck or balcony no more than 1-in. below interior floor

Overall Floor Plan

  • Main living on a single story, including full bath
  • No steps between rooms/areas on the same level
  • 5x5 ft. turn space in living area, kitchen, bedroom and bath


  • Minimum of 36-in. wide, wider preferred
  • Well lit


  • Accessible path to the door
  • At least one no-step, sheltered entry
  • Sensor light at no-step entry focused on the door lock
  • 36-in. doors
  • Non-slip flooring in foyer
  • Entry door sidelight or high/low peep hole viewer
  • Sidelights that provides both privacy and safety
  • Accessible doorbell (video doorbell preferable)
  • Surface to place packages on when opening door


  • Flush preferable
  • Exterior maximum ½-in. with bevel
  • Interior maximum ¼-in. with bevel

Interior Doors

  • 32-in. of clear width (36-in. door)
  • Levered door hardware


  • Plenty of windows for natural light
  • Lowered windows or taller windows with lower sill height
  • Low maintenance exterior and interior finishes
  • Easy to operate hardware
  • Tilt-in for ladder-free cleaning


  • Wider than average garage to accommodate lifts on vans
  • Door heights may need to be nine feet for some raised roof vans
  • Five-foot minimum access aisle between van and car in garage
  • If code requires floor to be several inches below entrance to house for fume protection, slope entire floor from front to back to eliminate need for ramp or step
  • Ramp to doorway, if needed
  • Handrail, if steps


  • Lever handles or pedal-controlled
  • Thermostatic valves controls
  • Pressure balanced anti-scald faucets


  • Wall support and provision for adjustable and/or varied height counters and removable base cabinets
  • Upper wall cabinetry three inches lower than conventional
  • Accented stripes on edge of countertops for visual orientation
  • Counter space for dish landing near all appliances
  • Base cabinets with roll out trays and lazy susans
  • Pull-down shelving
  • Glass-front cabinet doors
  • Open shelving for easy access to frequently used items


  • Easy to read controls
  • Front-load washer and dryer raised 12-15 in. above floor
  • Microwave oven at counter height or in wall
  • Side-by-side refrigerator/freezer
  • Side-swing or wall oven
  • Raised dishwasher with push-button controls
  • Electric or induction cook top with flush burners for safety in transferring between the burners, front controls; light to indicate when surface is hot


  • 30x48-in. clear space at appliances or 60-in. diameter turn space
  • Multi-level work areas to accommodate different height cooks
  • Open under-counter seated work areas
  • Place switches and some outlets in kitchen in accessible locations such as front top edge of base cabinets
  • Task lighting in appropriate work areas
  • Loop handles for easy grip and pull
  • Pull-out spray faucet with levered handles
  • In multi-story homes, laundry chute or laundry facilities near master bedroom


  • Wall support and provision for adjustable and/or varied height counters and removable base cabinets
  • Contrasting color edge border at countertops
  • At least one wheelchair maneuverable bath on main level with 5-ft turning radius or acceptable T-turn
  • Blocking in walls around tub and toilet and in shower for grab bars to support 250-300 pounds
  • Curbless 3-ft. minimum shower in main bath
  • Bathtub - lower for easier access
  • Fold down seat in the shower
  • Adjustable/handheld showerheads, 6-ft hose
  • Offset tub/shower controls
  • Light in shower
  • Comfort height (17-19 in.) toilet
  • Bidet toilet seat or at least one electrical receptacle near toilet
  • Wall-hung sink with knee space and hot pipes shield
  • Slip-resistant flooring in bathroom and shower

Stairways, Lifts, and Elevators

  • Graspable, continuous hand rails on both sides of stairway
  • Enhanced stair visibility with lighting, contrast strip on top and bottom stairs, and color contrast between treads and
  • Stacked closets or 4-ft-wide stairway for future elevator, lift


  • Slope no greater than 1-in. rise for each 12-in. in length
  • Handrails
  • 5-ft landing at entrance
  • 2-in. curbs


  • Adjustable closet rods and shelves
  • Lighting in closets
  • Easy open doors that do not obstruct access


  • Smooth, non-glare, slip-resistant surfaces
  • If carpeted, low dense pile with firm pad
  • Color/texture contrast to indicate surface level change

Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning

  • HVAC designed with accessible filters
  • Energy-efficient units
  • Operable windows for cross ventilation, fresh air

Energy-Efficient Features

  • In-line wall framing with 2x6 studs spaced 24-in. oc
  • Air-barrier and sealing of duct work with mastic
  • Reduced-size air conditioning units with gas furnaces
  • Mechanical fresh air ventilation, air returns in bedrooms
  • Energy efficient windows with Low-E glass

Reduced Maintenance/Convenience Features

  • Easy to clean surfaces
  • Central vacuum
  • Built-in pet feeding system
  • Built-in recycling system
  • Video phones
  • Intercom system

Electrical: Lighting, Safety and Security

  • Light fixtures with at least two bulbs in vital places
  • Light switches by each entrance to halls and rooms
  • Accessible switches no higher than 48 in.
  • Electrical outlets 15-in. on center from floor
  • Clear access of 30x 48-in. in front of switches and controls
  • Rocker or touch light switches
  • Audible and visual strobe light system to indicate when the doorbell, telephone or smoke or CO2 detectors have been activated
  • High-tech security/intercom system
  • Easy-to-see and read programmable thermostats
  • Flashing porch light or 911 switch
  • Direct wired to police, fire and EMS (optional)
  • Home wired for security
  • Home wired for computers

Other Ideas

  • Separate apartment for rental income or future caregiver
  • Flex room that can be used as a nursery, playroom or home office. With full bath, it could be used for an aging parent.

Adapted from Toolbase, Home Innovation Research Labs


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