Universal Design - Architecture for All

The Philosophy of Designing for Everyone

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Craven, Jackie. "Universal Design - Architecture for All." ThoughtCo, Jul. 25, 2016, thoughtco.com/universal-design-architecture-for-all-175907. Craven, Jackie. (2016, July 25). Universal Design - Architecture for All. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/universal-design-architecture-for-all-175907 Craven, Jackie. "Universal Design - Architecture for All." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/universal-design-architecture-for-all-175907 (accessed September 19, 2017).
Stirring a pot on a stove in a kitchen island allows interaction with dinner guests.
A stove within an island lets the cook see the entire room, including the doorway, and enables interactions with dinner guests. Photo by John Slater ©john slater / Collection: Digital Vision / Getty Images

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?

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?

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 affects of illness can create mobility problems, visual and auditory impairments, or cognitive decline.

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.

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 general guidelines.

Designing Accessible Spaces:

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 wheel chair.
  • 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.

    Learn More:

    Sources: Portions of this article are adapted from "The Stress-Free Home", a home design book by Jackie Craven, Rockport Publishers; The Principles of Universal Design, Version 2.0, College of Design, North Carolina State University, April 1, 1997; What is the difference between accessible, usable, and universal design, DO-IT, University of Washington, January 24, 2013 [accessed May 10, 2014]