Universal Appeal

Taking a design-for-all approach means meeting the needs of everyone- Regardless of age or physical ability.
By: Heather Hill Cernoch

A MULTILEVELED DWELLING perched on a hillside with sweeping views, sunken soaking bathtubs, and shiny marble kitchen floors sounds like a dream abode, but it may not have the same appeal - or accessibility - for everyone. A home's design will not always remain comfortable as its inhabitants age or if they become physically disabled - unless it was constructed with a universal design concept.

Also called "design-for-all," universal design means creating spaces accessible to the able-bodied and the disabled, the young and the elderly. The concept is gaining steam as life expectancy increases and more homeowners begin thinking about the future. When former first lady Laura Bush allowed cameras into her home in Crawford, Texas, for the Oprah Show earlier this year, her intentions for the ranch home's design were clear.

"I wanted a one-story house... with no thresholds," she said on the show. "I wanted George and I to be able to grow old here and get our wheelchairs or walkers, if we have them, through all of the doors."

Design features like wider entries and lowered light switches are beginning to appear in many homes across the country as homeowners and builders take note of universal design. Sol Quintana Wagoner, senior designer at Jackson Design and Remodeling in San Diego, agrees that a design-for-all approach is growing in popularity.

"Universal design is for all ages, and the ability to create a space that is modern yet functional and aesthetically pleasing is what everyone is looking for," Wagoner says. "Everyone wants to be independent whether they have a physical disability or not."

Wagoner cites a recent client, a young couple with three children, as an example of universal design's foothold. The family's home is an impressive size with stunning views, but many of its features were inconvenient for the husband, who had been in a wheelchair for most of his life. Because the couple wanted to stay in their home for many years, they opted to remodel several rooms of the home, including the kitchen, to accommodate their needs.

These particular clients wanted a kitchen that was functional for everyone in the family, but they did not want visitors aware that universal design elements were used. The designers set to work to create a space that was anything but clinical.

"It is important that we have the mindset that this is universal design and not design-for-the-disabled," Wagoner says. "It's being able to address the client's needs while creatively designing the space that reflects their taste, personalities, and lifestyle. They're a young family with a brand-new baby, they entertain, they have a beautiful view, etc. As a thought process, we looked for specific features that could solve the challenges of this client."

The microwave drawer, which opens by pressing a button, is on example of this hidden aesthetic. "[It's] strategically placed lower, but everyone can use it," says Wagoner. "So it's still appealing and doesn't interrupt the beauty of the kitchen."

The couple's dark, dated kitchen became a streamlined, modern space with clean lines and plenty of room to maneuver. The design includes 42-56 inches between the appliances and the island, and the bar was lowered from 36 inches to a standard table height with seating for the entire family, including areas at the ends that accommodate a wheelchair.

Other universal elements include a custom-designed, stainless steel sink with a center faucet. By placing the faucet at the center of the sink, it's now only 14 inches from the edge for enhanced access. A stainless steel prep sink includes a lighted faucet with hidden control switches below that operate various appliances.

In the family's previous kitchen, the appliances were not functional for everyone. Because the husband could not grip the dishwasher handle, a new double-tier, top-loading dishwasher was placed at a higher level with a door handle for easy opening. One of the kitchen's new ovens was placed at a level easily accessed from a wheelchair, and a custom handle on the refrigerator was designed as well.

Everyone loves an organized kitchen, but storage often becomes an issue in homes with disabled or elderly residents. For the San Diego family's new kitchen, Jackson Design and Remodeling came up with several alternatives for the usual pantry and shelving, including pull-outs for dishes and other items. The cabinetry also features lift and slide doors along the perimeter, so contents are easily viewed and accessed.

"The design changes met all the needs of the client for present use," Wagoner says. "This kitchen is easy to clean, and the materials are low maintenance, which appeals to everyone." And being universally appealing - and accessible - is what design-for-all is all about.

Jackson Design and Remodeling