Universal Design in Housing

by Ronald L. Mace, FAIA

Universal design in housing is a growing and beneficial concept. It is subtle in its differences from barrier-free, accessible, and industry standard housing. Accessibility standards and codes have not mandated universal design and do not apply to most housing. Universal design exceeds their minimum specifications for accessible design and results in homes that are usable by and marketable to almost everyone. Universal homes avoid use of special assistive technology devices and, instead, incorporate consumer products and design features that are easily usable and commonly available.

The market for universal design in housing includes everyone at some point in their lives, and the movement toward universal design in housing and consumer products is becoming more viable as our population ages. In view of this, The Center for Universal Design has followed its development of the seven Principles of Universal Design (Center for Universal Design, 1997) with a draft list of characteristic features of universal design in housing. This list is intended to serve as a guide for designers, builders, and buyers today and in the future as universal design in the housing industry evolves.


Why universal design in housing? What is universal design in housing? How does it differ from accessible or barrier-free housing? These are all good questions with subtle answers that make universal design somewhat difficult to understand in this application.

Universal design in housing is both accessible and barrier-free, but it carries these goals to a greater and more marketable extent than has been common practice for either of the other two design types. Universal design goes far beyond the minimum specifications and limitations of legislated mandates for accessible and barrier-free facilities.

Accessibility Standards

Accessible and barrier-free design for building types other than private housing has been mandated by building codes or laws and defined by minimum standards. By law, codes and standards stipulate the minimum regulatory action necessary to accomplish the stated goals, such as life safety or, in this case, accessibility.

Early standards and codes required few, if any, building features to be accessible. In 1961, the American National Standards Institute published the first national accessibility standard, titled "A117.1-Making Buildings and Facilities Accessible to and Usable by People with Disabilities." It stated that, for a building to comply and be usable, it had to have "a reasonable number but always at least one" of the features it described, i.e., one accessible door, one accessible toilet room, etc. Thus, most of the regulations and codes that adopted the standard have never mandated truly accessible or barrier-free buildings and facilities, but rather only parts and pieces of buildings were required to be accessible.

Also, only certain building types were required to comply. Early codes and standards included no provisions for private housing. The attitudes were that homes are private places not for public use and could not, or should not, be required to be accessible. Subsequent standards included some minimum specifications for accessible features in houses such as kitchen sinks, bathtubs, toilets, etc. However, these specifications were adopted and mandated in most localities only for applications in multifamily housing programs, such as publicly owned or managed apartments.

For many years, the accessible apartment requirements in many state building codes have generally remained applicable to only 5% of new units. Under the access requirements for housing programs receiving federal financial assistance covered by section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, only 5% of new apartments must be wheelchair accessible. An additional 2% must be equipped for visually impaired and blind residents and another 2% for hard-of-hearing and deaf tenants. These requirements, therefore, predominantly affect only selected features in a small number of rental apartments in publicly assisted housing projects.

The Fair Housing Act Amendments THAA) of 1988 established a special and different accessibility standard for rental multifamily housing. The Act mandates a lower level of accessibility but covers a greater number of apartments, including all units on ground floors and all units on floors served by elevators. The minimum level of access provided is an improvement over many conventional and inaccessible apartments, but it is not sufficient for many people with disabilities and is far from being barrier-free or accessible.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) does not cover or address accessible housing except for facilities such as motels, hotels, and dormitories. In these, the ADA standards for accessible design require, again, a limited number of units to meet minimal specifications that are special, not truly barrier-free, nor usable by many of the people with disabilities they are intended to accommodate.

Private Housing

There are no requirements that single-family or other forms of private housing be accessible or barrier-free and no incentives for the housing industry to change. Most accessible housing is built by and for persons with disabilities on an individual basis. Very little accessible housing is available on the open market and housing opportunities for people with disabilities continue to be extremely limited. Realtors, citing stigma, largely discount accessible houses as not marketable to others and devalue them in the marketplace. Designers and builders are not taught how to build accessible housing and usually either defer to early institutional standards and codes or seek advice from rehabilitation specialists. This process too frequently results in unnecessary use of expensive assistive technology devices, durable medical equipment such as stainless steel and chrome grab bars, and awkward features such as ramps that give houses a clinical, "special" look. Thus, many such accessible homes give the genre a negative image and, indeed, are devalued in the marketplace.

Universal Design in Housing

Universal design in housing far exceeds the minimum specifications of legislated barrier-free and accessible mandates. Universal design in housing applies the principles of universal design to all spaces, features, and aspects of houses and creates homes that are usable by and marketable to people of all ages and abilities. Some features of universally designed homes are adjustable to meet particular needs or needs that change as family members age yet allow the home to remain marketable on the open real estate market. Universal design has the unique quality that, when done well, it is invisible.

Universal design in housing:

  • is not mandated and probably cannot be mandated;
  • includes accessible and barrier-free design;
  • is not assistive technology;
  • avoids clinical images, use of durable medical equipment, and special features;
  • includes some adaptable or adjustable features;
  • seeks and uses consumer products that are universally usable and commonly available;
  • makes houses easier and safer for everyone to use throughout the lifespan;
  • anticipates future needs;
  • supports the independent living, home health care, and aging-in-place movements;
  • responds to common market trends and human needs; and
  • creates a market for more universally usable products.


The idea for universal design in housing grew out of recognition that, because most of the features needed by people with disabilities were useful to others, there was justification to make their inclusion common practice. For example, raising electrical receptacles to 15 or 18 in. above the floor eliminates the need to bend over as far and makes them easier to use for everyone or more universal. Some universal features make common activities easier for all. For example, moving is much easier in houses with stepless entrances and wider doors and hallways. Some universal design features create experiences many people have not had before. For example, when well designed, bathrooms with extra floor space to accommodate users of mobility aids are perceived as luxurious and people revel in their new-found ability to have furniture in the bathroom. A chair, bookcase, towel rack, or etagere can give bathrooms a marketable elegance and utility, and they can be removed if the space is ever needed to accommodate a family member or friend.

Universal design in housing is not a new science, a style, or unique in any way. It requires only an awareness of need and market and a commonsense approach to making everything we design and produce usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible. In many instances, it requires only slight changes in simple things, such as the shape of an element, its placement or size, the force necessary to operate it, or the way in which the user must interact with the item.

Hierarchies of Usability

The term universal is not ideal because nothing can be truly universal; there will always be people who cannot use an item no matter how thoughtfully it is designed. However, we can almost always improve on the things we design to make them more universally usable. In fact, "more universal" or "more nearly universal" are expressions frequently used to recognize that there are hierarchies within universal design of building elements. Doors, e.g., can be arranged in a hierarchy that ranges from those that are most universal, i.e., require the least human action to use, to those that are least universal, i.e., require the most human action to use. The door hierarchy starts with a cased opening or an air door, which has no door and therefore requires no human action, then moves up to power doors with automatic sensors or mat switches, which require some action, and moves through a series of increasingly difficult manual doors to one equipped with a heavy automatic closer, a round knob, and a key-operated full-time lock.

In the product arena, hierarchies also exist. A product may meet the needs of most people but omit a feature for one category of user. Is a product universal if essential information cannot be perceived by blind users? The answer is no; it is neither truly universal nor as universal as possible. It could be more universal if its information were communicated by voice module or tactile method.

Assistive Technology

Universal design in housing is not assistive technology. Assistive technology devices are special aids for use by individuals with a particular disability. In housing, they may include such items as wheelchairs, walkers, mechanical ventilators, special adjustable-height toilet seats, offset door hinges, bathtub lifts, and environmental control devices. Universally designed homes can eliminate the need for some assistive technology devices and make installation and use of others more convenient should the special type of assistance they provide become needed. For example, installing showers and tubs that have built-in folding or fixed seats that can be used by everyone eliminates the need for special seats. Including extra blocking in ceilings and walls at critical locations allows grab bars and track lifts to be installed if, when, and where needed without structural changes. Installing wide doors during initial home construction eliminates the need to install offset hinges later, and additional electrical service in bedrooms and baths accommodates add-on assistive technology as it is needed.

Thus, universal design in housing accommodates but is not based on assistive technology. Universal design in housing is usually possible only in new construction, but home modifications can improve the accessibility of existing homes. Many assistive technology devices are aids for functioning in existing inaccessible environments and are, therefore, often needed to help avoid or minimize the need for expensive and disruptive home modifications. Universal design is based in the mainstream consumer market and creates houses that at least do not hinder people from living as actively as their abilities will allow.

One large difference between assistive technology and universal design in housing is in their aesthetics and associated marketing approaches. Assistive technology devices are generally not the kind of products homeowners are eager to buy and use in their homes. Their design and development are generally concerned with function (as perceived by professional caregivers) and determined by competitive costs, not user preferences or experiences. Little or no attention is paid to the aesthetics of assistive technology and rarely is competitive marketing an issue. Users, considered to be patients, are expected to use the devices selected by their professional caregivers and be grateful for the improved function or support they receive despite any stigma, embarrassment, or negative image the devices may generate. Universal design, on the other hand, appeals to and is marketable to people of all ages and abilities.

Consumer Products

Universal design in housing seeks and uses features and products that provide the same support as assistive technology devices but that are attractive and mass marketable to anyone. Some products cross over from assistive technology to consumer markets and vice versa. One such crossover product was an imported listening system for hard-of-hearing people who needed higher volume to watch their televisions but didn't want to disturb others. It consisted of wireless headphones with a built-in receiver, a discreet volume control, and an infrared or FM transmitter that could be attached to any television. The system became available as an assistive device in the early 1980s and cost approximately $600. Today, it is a consumer product marketed to audiophiles for home stereos, televisions, and other sound systems. It is sold through retail outlets, electronic stores, and catalogs for $69. Similarly, the inexpensive X-10 wireless residential remote control widely marketed as a convenience and home security system for more than 20 years is an excellent non-life-supporting environmental control device that can bring home automation, lighting, and small appliance control to people with disabilities. These consumer devices provide advantages similar to assistive technology equipment but are attractive and available at lower costs because they are designed and mass marketed as consumer products.

Some common home products such as the power garage-door operator are essentially assistive technology. They assist people who cannot open or have difficulty opening overhead garage doors. They are also a convenience item because, when equipped with remote controls, one need not get out of the car to open or close the door. Because they are mass marketed in a positive way as consumer products, they are widely available for about $150 and are never perceived to be special or assistive devices. Residential power door operators for people who have difficulty opening and using entrance doors, on the other hand, are not widely available. Although no more complex or sophisticated, they cost four to six times as much as a garage opener and, as a result, are not seen as a consumer or convenience product. As their use increases, costs are coming down. Positive marketing could change the perception of this item and make it a common amenity, with great benefit to anyone bringing in groceries or doing similar daily tasks.

The Population of People with Disabilities

The number of people who could benefit from widespread adoption of universal design principles in housing is large. It includes virtually everyone, by some measures. The frequently quoted government-generated number of 54 million people with disabilities (McNeil, 1997) was determined from limited census data and includes recipients of disability benefits programs. It excludes millions of people who have limitations but are outside the categories counted. The Arthritis Foundation estimates that 40 million Americans have arthritis alone (Arthritis Foundation, 1997). Other associations list similarly large numbers. Most non-government sources count people who do not identify themselves as disabled or receive any form of disability benefits or services and are not included in the 54 million figure. Added to these people are others who have no discernible cause of limitation other than the reduced stamina, agility, eyesight, hearing, etc. that accompany the normal process of aging.

All told, no one goes through life without experiencing some disabling conditions. Thus, the shift in approach in the design of housing and consumer products toward more universal usability has long-term value as our aging population grows.

Examples of Universal Design in Housing

There are good examples that demonstrate that universal design in housing is progressing. Excel Homes in Pennsylvania asked The Center for Universal Design to modify 24 of their best-selling modular home plans. The houses are now available with optional kitchen and bathroom plans to fit almost any need. The Home Store in Wheatly, MA, markets Excel and similar houses in the northeast region and has had several additional universal units designed for their particular market. Amherst Homes in Cincinnati now makes all of its new homes as universal as possible. Miles Homes in Minnesota offers universal home design and marketing services. Planning is underway for the first commercially available book of universal house plans and related information. It is expected to be available in 1999.

Characteristics of Universal Design in Housing

The Center for Universal Design has developed a draft list of the characteristic features of universal houses. It is a work in progress that is expected to evolve into a guide for designers, builders, and consumers. The list is based on experience with accessible, adaptable, and universal design in housing and product development for over 30 years. This list is intended to serve as a guide. The features described are those we might look for in a universal house, but not all are expected to be included in any given home.

The following list of characteristics includes elements, features, ideas, and concepts that contribute to or can be components of a universal house. Some are finite recommendations. Some are options. Some are scope statements about how many of a feature must or should be included. Obviously, the more universal design characteristics or features included, the more usable the house. The Center welcomes readers' comments and advice on these characteristics.


  • No steps at entrances
    • Making all home entrances stepless is best.
    • More than one stepless entrance is preferred.
    • At least one stepless entrance is essential; if only one, not through a garage or from a patio or deck.
  • Site design methods for integrated stepless entrances
    • Level bridges to uphill point.
    • Garage elevated to floor level so vehicles do the climbing.
    • Earth berm and bridge and sloping walk details.
    • Site grading and earth work (with foundation waterproofing) and sloping walks at 1-in-20 maximum slope.
    • Ramps avoided; if used, ramps must be integrated into the design.
  • Maximum rise of 1/2 in. at thresholds.
  • View of visitors for all people, including children and seated users
    • Sidelights,
    • Wide-angle viewers,
    • TV monitors, and/or
    • Windows in doors or nearby.
  • A place to put packages while opening doors: built-in shelf, bench, or table with knee space below located on the outside next to the door.
  • Weather protection shelter while unlocking and opening doors
    • Porch,
    • Stoop with roof,
    • Long roof overhang,
    • Awning, and/or
    • Carport.
  • A way for visitors to communicate with residents
    • Lighted doorbell,
    • Intercom with portable telephone link, and/or
    • Hardwired intercom.
  • Space at entry doors: minimum 5 ft X 5 ft level clear space on both inside and outside of entry door for maneuvering while opening or closing door (can be smaller if automatic power door is provided).
  • Light for operating at entry doors
    • Focused light on lockset,
    • General illumination for seeing visitors at night, and/or
    • Motion detector controls that turn on lights when someone approaches the door, help eliminate the problem of dark approaches to home, and add to sense of security.
  • Address house number: large, high contrast and located in a prominent place to be easy for friends and emergency personal to locate.

Interior Circulation
  • At least one bedroom and accessible bathroom should be located on an accessible ground floor entry level (on the same level as the kitchen, living room, etc.).
  • Minimum of 32 in. clear door opening width (34-36 in. wide doors) for all doorways.
  • Minimum of 18 in. clear floor space beside door on pull side at latch jamb: provides space to move out of the way of the door swing when pulling it open.
  • Accessible route (42 in. minimum width): provides maneuvering room in hallways and archways.
  • Turning space of 5-ft diameter in all rooms.

Vertical Circulation

  • All stairs to have appropriate width and space at the bottom for later installation of a platform lift, if needed.
  • At least one set of stacked closets, pantries, or storage spaces with knock-out floor for later use as an elevator shaft; or
  • A residential elevator with minimum 3 ft X 4 ft clear floor installed at the time of initial construction.
  • Stair handrails to extend horizontally beyond the top and bottom risers.

Light and Color

  • Contrast between floor surfaces and trim: color or contrast difference that facilitates recognition of the junction of floor surfaces and walls.
  • Avoid glossy surfaces.
  • Color contrast difference between treads and risers on stairs.
  • Ambient and focused lighting: lots of light, lighting that is thoughtful and variable, emphasizing lighting at entrances, stairs, and task lighting.
  • Contrast between counter tops and front edges or cabinet faces.


  • Easy to use, requiring little or no strength and flexibility
    • Lever door handles,
    • Push plates,
    • Loop handle pulls on drawers and cabinet doors - no knobs,
    • Touch latches,
    • Magnetic latches in lieu of mechanical, and
    • Keyless locks.

Switches and Controls

  • Light switches at 36-44 in. above floor maximum and thermostats at 48 in. maximum height.
  • Easy-touch rocker or hands-free switches (see Home Automation, below).
  • Additional electrical outlets at bed locations and desk for equipment: fourplex boxes on each side for computer and electronic equipment as well as personal use equipment.
  • Electrical outlets at 18 in. minimum height allows easy reach from a sitting position as well as for those who have trouble bending over.
  • Electrical panel with top no more than 54 in. above floor located with a minimum 30 in. X 40 in. clear floor space in front.

Home Automation

  • Motion detector light switches in garages, utility spaces, entrances, and basements.
  • Remote controls for selected lights.
  • Remote controls for heating and cooling.
  • Doorbell intercoms that connect to portable telephones.
  • Audible and visual alarms for doorbell, baby monitor, smoke detector, etc.

Plumbing Fixture Controls

  • Single-lever water controls at all plumbing fixtures and faucets.
  • Pressure balanced antiscald valves at tubs and showers.
  • Hand-held showerheads at all tubs and showers in addition to fixed heads, if provided.
  • Single-lever diverter valves, if needed.

  • Adjustable-height hand-held showerhead on 60 in. flexible hose: allows easy use by people of all heights.
  • Mixer valve with pressure balancing and hot water limiter: prevents scalds by people who cannot move out of the way if the water temperature or pressure changes suddenly.


When more than one bathroom is provided, all are to meet the following criteria, including bathrooms on second floors.

At least one bathroom must have one of the following accessible bathing fixtures:

  • Minimum 5 ft long X 3 ft (4 ft preferred) deep curbless shower (see wet area shower details below).
  • Tub with integral seat, waterproof floor, and a floor drain.


Other bathrooms in the same house may have a tub with an integral seat or a 3 ft X 3 ft transfer shower with an L-shaped folding seat and 1/2 in. maximum lip (curb) in lieu of the fixtures described above. When more than one bathroom has the same type of bathing fixture (a tub, shower, or wet area shower), at least one shower should be arranged for left-handed use and one for right-handed use.

  • Adequate maneuvering space: 60 in. diameter turning space in the room and 30 in. X 48 in. clear floor spaces at each fixture. Spaces may overlap.
  • Clear space of 3 ft in front and to one side of toilet: allows for easy maneuvering to and around toilet.
  • Toilet centered 18 in. from any side wall, cabinet, or tub.
  • Broad blocking between studs in walls around toilet, tub, and shower: allows for future placement and relocation of grab bars while assuring adequate load-bearing capacity (eliminates the need to open up wall to add blocking later).
  • Minimum lavatory counter height of 32 in.
  • Clear knee space 29 in. high under lavatory: allows someone to use the lavatory from a seated position. May provide open knee space or removable vanity or fold-back or self-storing doors. Pipe protection panels must be provided to prevent contact with hot or sharp surfaces.
  • Countertop lavatories are preferred with the bowl mounted as close to the front edge of the counter as possible.
  • Wall hung lavatories are acceptable with appropriate pipe protection.
  • Pedestal lavatories are not acceptable.
  • Long mirrors should be placed with bottom no more than 36 in. above the finished floor and top at least 72 in. high. Full-length mirrors are good choices.
  • Offset controls in tub/shower with adjacent clear floor space: allows for easy access from outside the tub with no inconveniences when inside.
  • Integral transfer seat in tub and in 3 ft X 3 ft shower stall: allows people to sit in tub/shower without needing additional equipment.
  • Grab bars: if installed, should not be stainless steel or chrome. Use colors to match decor.


  • Space between face of cabinets and cabinets and walls should be 48 in. minimum.
  • Clear knee space under sink 29 in. high minimum: allows someone to use the sink from a seated position. May provide open knee space or removable base cabinets or fold-back, bifold, or self-storing doors. Pipe protection panels must be provided to prevent contact with hot or sharp surfaces.
  • Adjustable-height (28-42 in.) work surfaces: electrically powered continuously adjustable counter segments, some with cook tops, others with sink and disposal units; or
  • Mechanically adjustable counter segments, some with cook tops, others with sinks and disposal units, adjustable from 28 in. to 42 in.: allows in-kitchen work for people of all heights, those with back trouble, people who are seated, and children.
  • Contrasting color border treatment on counter tops: color or contrast difference that facilitates recognition of the edges of counters and the different heights to prevent accidental spills.
  • Stretches of continuous counter tops for easy sliding of heavy items, particularly between refrigerator, sink, and stovetop for easy one-level flood flow.
  • Full-extension pull-out drawers, shelves, and racks in base cabinets for easy reach to all storage space.
  • Adjustable-height shelves in wall cabinets.
  • Pantry storage with easy access pull-out and/or adjustable-height shelves for easy reach to all items stored (e.g., Stor-Ease pantry storage system).
  • Front-mounted controls on appliances to facilitate reach.
  • Cook top with knee space below: allows someone to use the appliance from a seated position. May provide open knee space or removable base cabinets or fold-back or self-storing doors. Pipe protection panels must be provided to prevent contact with hot or abrasive surfaces.
  • Cook top or range with staggered burners and front- or side-mounted controls to eliminate dangerous reaching over hot burners.
  • Glare-free task lighting to illuminate work areas without too much reflectivity. Side-by-side refrigerator: allows easy reach to all items, particularly if pull-out shelving is provided; or
  • Use under-counter or drawer-type refrigerators and install them on raised platforms for optimum access to storage space at 18 in. to 48 in. above finished floor.
  • Built-in oven with knee space beside. Locate so one pull-out oven rack is at same height as adjacent counter top with pull-out shelf.
  • Drop-in range with knee space beside. Locate top surface at 34 in. above finished floor.
  • Dishwasher raised on a platform or drawer unit so top rack is level with adjacent counter top. This also puts bottom racks within easy reach, requiring less bending.

Laundry Areas

  • Front-loading washers and dryers with front controls. Washers and dryers raised on platforms to reduce need to bend, stoop, or lean over.
  • Laundry sink and counter top surface no more than 34 in. above finished floor with knee space below.
  • Clear space 36 in. wide across full width in front of washer and dryer and extending at least 18 in. beyond right and left sides (extended space can be part of knee space under counter tops, sink, etc.).


  • Fifty percent of storage to be no more than 54 in. high.
  • Adjustable-height closet rods and shelves: allows for flexibility of storage options.
  • Provide lower storage options for children, short, and seated people.
  • Motorized cabinets that raise and lower.
  • Power operated clothing carousels.


  • Windows for viewing to have 36 in. maximum sill height.
  • Casements, awnings, hoppers, and jalousies are good choices but are not essential.
  • Crank-operated windows.
  • Power operators whenever possible.

Sliding Doors

  • Bypassing closet doors: each panel should create an opening at least 32 in. clear.
  • Interior pocket doors: when fully open, door should extend 2 in. minimum beyond doorjamb and be equipped with an open-loop handle for easy gripping.
  • Exterior sliding doors: drop frame and threshold into subfloor to reduce upstanding threshold track or ramp finished flooring to match top of track on both sides.


  • Build deck at same level as house floor.
  • Keep deck clear of house and use slatted decking for positive drainage, e.g., a wood trench drain.

Garages and Carports

  • Power-operated overhead doors.
  • Door height and headroom clearances 8 ft
Availability Information: 

Source: Assistive Technology, Volume 10, No. 1, pp. 21-28, (c) 1998 RESNA

Address correspondence and reprint requests to:
The Center for Universal Design
Box 8613, School of Design
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC 27695-8613, USA
Phone: 919-515-3082 (V/TTY)
Fax: 919-515-3023
E-mail: cud@ncsu.edu