The late Ron Mace, a polio survivor who used a wheelchair, defined and popularized universal design, what he called a “commonsense approach to making everything we design and produce usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible.”
Mace was an American architect who pushed for features in houses and apartments that can be used by anyone — regardless of their age, height, size or disability. After a few years in his trade, he widened his focus and advocated for building codes that required such features in homes built in his state of North Carolina and other states. His philosophy influenced the design of a major arts center and adaptations that were made to the U.S. Capitol.
Mace’s advocacy work presaged the passing of federal laws, such as the Fair Housing Amendments Act (1988) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), that bar discrimination against people with physical impairments.
While the ADA eliminates architectural barriers from public facilities, Mace’s universal design principles increasingly influence single-family, private homes as well as consumer products as diverse as hands-free athletic shoes or beauty products for every skin tone.
Homes that adhere to universal design principles accommodate people at all stages of life, allowing them to age in place. Mace’s ideas have gained ground in other countries, especially those with aging populations. In recent years, architectural firms in Japan, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and Canada — as well as in the United States — have built award-winning projects that employ universal design.
Architects Danise Levine and Beth Tauke, who teach at the State University of New York at Buffalo and work at the university’s Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access, said U.S. homeowners increasingly request universal design features. And if incorporated into new construction, universal design saves money because modifications won’t be necessary as homeowners age.
Universal design is more common in newly constructed homes, Levine says. “Homeowners who do incorporate universal design features into existing homes typically do it in stages, prioritizing the areas they think will benefit them the most.”
Levine and Tauke cite single-story floor plans and open floor plans, wider doorways and hallways, barrier-free bathrooms and even lever door handles, which are easier to grasp than doorknobs, as popular features.
Many owners of older homes, they said, start by modifying bathrooms — replacing a bathtub with a stepless shower to prevent falls or adding a shower seat, grab bars and slip-resistant flooring.
Universally designed homes are easier to live in for young families, the elderly, “and everyone in between,” Tauke said. There are no stairs — a safety advantage. And such homes are easier to clean and maintain.
In the midst of a pandemic that has forced many people to spend far more time in their homes, the advantages of universal design — particularly in residential architecture — have become more apparent than ever.