Broad Appeal

Universal Design principles create living spaces the whole family can enjoy.

By Rachael Devaney | Photography by Kris Hughes-Craig

While design principles that address aging in place have grown in popularity over the last decade, universal design practices are swiftly taking over. Universal design seeks to solve accessibility issues for all household members, regardless of age, size or ability, and is a more inclusive approach to design.

Betsy Laughton, a building and remodeling designer at Capizzi Home Improvement in Cotuit, believes universal design concepts can be closely linked to aging-in-place and accessible design, but takes the idea a step further by incorporating aesthetically pleasing elements that can address people with a spectrum of needs in one household. “Universal design is trending right now because of the versatility it offers to so many unique and different families,” Laughton says. “And while it doesn’t need to cost an arm and a leg, if it’s done thoughtfully, universal design can create a cohesive and seamless living space that is comfortable for everyone.”

What’s Cooking in the Kitchen?

While each project is as unique as the people who live there, Laughton shares a few of the most popular and easy-to-access universal design elements for kitchens:

Pullout spice cabinets
Microwaves located in base cabinets and pullout center cabinet shelves
Corner “Lazy Susans” with swing-out shelving
Wall ovens with doors that have side hinges versus bottom
Refrigerator and freezer in base cabinet location
Rollout base shelving

Pull-out spice cabinets, “Lazy Susans” and easy-to-reach refrigerator and freezer drawers are just a few functional kitchen design elements that reduce crouching and bending, while making space for wheelchairs and other equipment that a person may need for mobility. Shelving and appliances that can be easily accessed minimize reaching and create a well-organized, clean space to work in. These helpful elements also assist people who don’t want to bend down or get on their hands and knees to find a particular pot or pan.

Universal design is not just relegated to those with limited mobility; its purpose is to make spaces easily accessed by every member of the household. For instance, if a client needs a ramp that stretches from the driveway to the back door, Laughton suggests incorporating stairs for those who don’t need to use a ramp. “If you are headed to the kitchen to put groceries away, and you don’t require the use of a wheelchair, you don’t want to walk up a 30-foot-long winding ramp,” Laughton says. “That’s why we take a step back, look at the whole picture, and come up with other options—like including stairs—so the entire design helps everyone.”

Bringing the bathroom up to speed

When it comes to designing the bathroom, the first thing Laughton addresses is the entrance. Aging-in-place designs require a 36-inch doorway as well as a minimum of 36 inches of space between fixtures, but there are always creative ways to accommodate a wheelchair without creating a bathroom that looks “cavernous,” Laughton says. Possible solutions may include choosing larger, lighter tiles for the floor, avoiding cathedral ceilings, using light to draw the eye away from an area or hanging a pair of mirrors instead of one large mirror.

A curbless, roll-in shower that allows a wheelchair to move smoothly in and out is another common universal design element for the bathroom. “Planning is essential with curbless showers, and in order to pull them off, clients need to think about wider hallways, a pitched floor and suspended vanity cabinets,” Laughton advises. “It takes a lot to create a cohesive and functional look, but by taking your time and pinpointing essential needs, residents can stay safe and stylish at the same time.”

Universal design guidance

But regardless of what room,

or collection of spaces her clients are renovating, Laughton explains that she and other designers at Capizzi Home Improvement familiarize themselves with each family and the needs they have in order to make sure those requirements are met in the present as well as the future. “We start by going to the client’s home, taking measurements and talking extensively about what they envision for their space,” Laughton says. “Throughout the process we will make revisions and nail down concrete plans before we actually start to build.”

One aspect that helps Laughton throughout each project is technology, specifically computerized drafting, which allows clients to see designs projected in three dimensions. While home improvement has historically relied on hand drawings, Laughton says the on-screen digital plans help bridge the gap between what a client is envisioning and what the design actually looks like. “They can now see the designs so clearly, which prompts questions, revisions and further discussion,” says Laughton. “And that’s exactly what we want as designers because it helps us completely meet their expectations.”

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