Universal Design is Architecture for All

Prairie style house on a bright, sunny day.

David Sawyer / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

In architecture, universal design means creating spaces that meet the needs of all people, young and old, able and disabled. From the arrangement of the rooms to the choice of colors, many details go into the creation of accessible spaces. Architecture tends to focus on accessibility for people with disabilities, but Universal Design is the philosophy behind accessibility.

No matter how beautiful, your home will not be comfortable or appealing if you cannot move freely through its rooms and independently perform the basic tasks of life. Even if everyone in the family is able-bodied, a sudden accident or the long-term effects of illness can create mobility problems, visual and auditory impairments, or cognitive decline. Designing for the blind is one example of universal design.

Your dream home may have spiral staircases and balconies with sweeping views, but will it be usable by and accessible for everyone in your family?

Definition of Universal Design

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.

-Center for Universal Design

Principles of Universal Design

The Center for Universal Design at the College of Design, North Carolina State University, has established seven overarching principles for all universal design:

  1. Equitable Use
  2. Flexibility in Use
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use
  4. Perceptible Information (e.g., color contrast)
  5. Tolerance for Error
  6. Low Physical Effort
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use
If product designers apply universal design principles, with a special focus on accessibility for people with disabilities, and if usability experts routinely include people with a variety of disabilities in usability tests, more products will be accessible to and usable by everyone.

-Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT), University of Washington

Your local housing agencies can give you more detailed specifications for construction and interior design in your area. Listed here are some very general guidelines.

Designing Accessible Spaces

President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law on July 26, 1990, but did that start the ideas of accessibility, usability, and universal design? The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) is not the same as Universal Design. But anyone who practices Universal Design will likely not have to worry about the minimum regulations of the ADA.

  • Allow enough floor space to accommodate a stationary wheelchair and also enough room for a smooth U-turn: at least 1965 mm (78 inches) by 1525 mm (60 inches).
  • Include tables or counters that are a variety of heights to accommodate standing, seating, and a range of different tasks.
  • Provide shelves and a medicine cabinet that can be reached by persons seated in a wheelchair.
  • Make sure entry doors to rooms are at least 815 mm (32 inches) wide.
  • Mount bathroom sinks no higher than 865 mm (34 inches) from the floor.
  • Install grab bars in the shower and beside the toilet.
  • Provide a full-length mirror that can be viewed by all people, including children.
  • Avoid shag carpets, uneven brick floors, and other floor surfaces that could pose slipping and tripping hazards.
  • Design a room so deaf people can accomplish tasks while facing the room's center. Mirrors are a poor solution to universal design.

Learning Universal Design

The Universal Design Living Laboratory (UDLL), a modern prairie-style house completed in November 2012, is a National Demonstration Home in Columbus, Ohio. The DO-IT Center (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) is an educational center at the University of Washington in Seattle. Promoting universal design in physical spaces and technologies is part of their local and international initiatives. The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University College of Design has been at the forefront of innovation, promotion, and struggles for funding.


Connell, Bettye Rose. "The Principles of Universal Design." Version 2.0, The Center for Universal Design, NC State University, April 1, 1997.

Craven, Jackie. "The Stress-Free Home: Beautiful Interiors for Serenity and Harmonious Living." Hardcover, Quarry Books, August 1, 2003.

"Index." Center for Universal Design, College of Design, North Carolina State University, 2008.

"The Home." Universal Design Living Laboratory, 2005.

"What is the difference between accessible, usable, and universal design?" DO-IT, University of Washington, April 30, 2019.

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Craven, Jackie. "Universal Design is Architecture for All." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/universal-design-architecture-for-all-175907. Craven, Jackie. (2021, February 16). Universal Design is Architecture for All. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/universal-design-architecture-for-all-175907 Craven, Jackie. "Universal Design is Architecture for All." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/universal-design-architecture-for-all-175907 (accessed March 25, 2023).