Universal Design for Independent Living

Key design features for aging in place to create a space that works for all generations.

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A wide open floor plan ensures flexibility of use and helps increase mobility for those using walkers or wheelchairs.

The desire to remain independent, whether in the home, within the community or at the office, resonates with everyone, especially as our population ages. As a result, design factors that focus on accessibility, functionality and safety become increasingly important in making that independence possible.

This is where universal design comes into the picture, enabling professionals to suggest subtle yet important touches that can make aging in place easier without sacrificing style. Adding details such as decorative grab bars in the bath, cabinet storage that pulls out, and two-level counter heights for easy access for those standing or sitting in a wheelchair. Other subtle design strategies can include choosing colors that are easier for older eyes to see, to using contrast for easier navigation, to installing purposeful lighting that increases safety.


Painting rooms different colors helps break up spaces for those with impaired vision.

Principles of universal design

Universal design is the idea that products and environments are created to be accessed, used and understood by all people to the greatest extent possible. In particular, a space that incorporates universal design principles will benefit those of all ages, sizes, disabilities and abilities while maintaining a seamless and beautiful atmosphere, as opposed to an institutional or therapeutic look.

Below are seven key principles of universal design developed in 1997 by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers from North Carolina State University, and examples on how to utilize each throughout various environments we live in:

1. Equitable use: Useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities
Example: At least one entrance without steps allows people of all ages and abilities to enter the space

2. Flexibility in use: Accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities
Example: An adjustable handheld showerhead allows for flexibility for people of all ages and sizes

3. Simple and intuitive use: Easy to understand, regardless of experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level
Example: Rocker light switches placed at a sensible height for easy access

4. Perceptible information: Communicates necessary information, regardless of ambient conditions or user’s sensory abilities
Example: Contrasting wall color allows aging eyes to see fixtures more clearly

5. Tolerance for error: Minimizes hazards and adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions
Example: Add a slip-resistant additive to the topcoat of concrete

6. Low physical effort: Can be used efficiently and comfortably with a minimum of fatigue
Example: Cabinets, shelves or appliances within reach of people with disabilities

7. Size and space for approach and use: Can be reached, manipulated and used regardless of body size, posture or mobility
Example: An open floor plan with 36-inch wide doorways and hallways allow for easy use, even for those in wheelchairs


Picking furniture colors that contrast with the walls and flooring helps improve navigation for those with vision deficiencies.

The role of color, sheen and light on aging eyes

Effective use of color can play a significant role in universal design. The lens of the human eye becomes progressively more yellow over time, and by age 70, many people see the world through a lens roughly the color of ginger ale. This filtering effect makes it easier to see yellows, oranges and reds, and harder to distinguish between blues and purples. Colors may also look faded and washed out.

When specifying colors, make sure there is contrast between furniture, fixtures, floor coverings and other items that need to stand out in order for a space to be safely navigated. An all-white bathroom may feel bright and clean, but the monochromatic color scheme is hard on people with cataracts or glaucoma. It is suggested that a contrasting wall color can highlight fixtures and aid in depth perception to help those with degenerative eye diseases get around the room easier.

When selecting paints, also consider the effect of gloss and sheen on aging eyes, as older people are sensitive to glare from light and other reflective surfaces. A higher sheen can further distort colors, but specifying low-reflective options can minimize this effect. Flat/matte and satin/eg-shel paints are recommended choices.

Finally, the use of various lighting elements is important both for aesthetic and practical reasons. Include a mix of lighting for different activities: ambient lighting for moving about the house, task lighting for reading recipes or prescription bottles, and natural light to help distinguish colors.



Key takeaways

By incorporating universal design principles into plans, professionals can create residential and commercial spaces that are more accessible, usable and safe for every generation. And while aging eyes see color sheen and light differently, certain colors, color schemes and finishes can improve functionality in subtle and stylish ways.

For more information on universal design and other related topics visit www.swceulearn.com.

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