The Comprehensive Guide To Home Renovations Large and Small
Home Renovation Guide - Chapter 3

Universal Design

Note: definitions for the underlined words in this chapter are found in the Glossary of Terms.

More and more homeowners are opting for universal design when making certain home renovations. The reason is simple. While standard design best suits the “average person” of average age, height, and agility, universal design accommodates all persons; regardless of age, size, or physical mobility. Creating a lifespan environment that serves each family member throughout their lifetime.

Taking universal design into consideration when planning a home renovation project can help to avoid costly alterations at a later date that might be required because of limited physical ability. This not only creates living space that work best for all persons who live in or visit your home. The real estate value of your home is increased, as well.

Universal interior design features include:

  • Wider doorways
  • Wider traffic areas around furnishings and fixtures
  • Lower counter, table top, and workspace for ease of access, whether sitting or standing
  • Lowered bathroom fixtures for greater independence
  • Consistent lighting throughout the house for uniform visual clarity
  • Brighter lighting for increased visibility
  • Nightlights in all areas of nighttime activity
  • Lights in all closets, as well as adjustable rods and shelves
  • Easy to grasp handles for all drawers and cabinet doors
  • Handrails on both sides of all steps
  • Reflective non-slip tape on all non-carpeted stairs
  • Grab bar installation where appropriate
  • Phones with large buttons installed in each room, making access more convenient
  • Lowered light fixtures with switch plates that make turning the light on and off easier, such as rocker switches
  • Illuminated light switches where appropriate
  • Timed, motion, touch, or voice-activated light fixtures where appropriate
  • Specially designed door and window hardware; including lever door handles, swing-clear hinges, single-lever and tandem latches, and remote locks or keyless entry systems
  • Ease of movement, non-slip floors and floor coverings

Note: most of the objects and materials required to make these type universal design modifications to your home can be purchased at local department or hardware stores .

Kitchen stoves with front controls and a maximum reach of 21-inches best accommodates persons in wheelchairs. Showers with a non-slip floor, a seat 20-inches high and at least

18-inches wide, grab bars 33-inches off the floor, and a hand-held shower with controls no higher than 60-inches all allow persons with limited mobility increased independence.

Installation of some of these type universal features requires the expertise of a professional contractor, while others can be incorporated into room design by the do-it- yourself homeowner.

For projects requiring special skills, there are many kitchen, bathroom, and interior design professionals who specialize in universal design. Making a safer, more convenient, user- friendly environment for everyday life; one that best meets the needs of each family member, from the youngest to the oldest.


The exterior of the home can also be altered, making access into the home and yard easier and safer for all persons. Steps, for instance, can be replaced with ramps – which are safer.

No longer considered just for wheelchair use, ramps assist lots of different people of every age, with varied physical ability. Small children, household with elderly family members, people with weak knees or leg injury, and growing families that use carriages and strollers to transport infants can all benefit from ramps.

Ramps can be constructed out of wood, concrete, asphalt, or metal. Styles of ramps vary:

  • Straight-shot ramps that make no turns
  • L-shaped ramps that make a 90-degree turn
  • Switchback ramps that make a 180-degree turn

Have ramps built close to the house; for convenience sake as well as cosmetic appeal. Ramps that are 30-feet long or more will be easier to maneuver if there is a flat landing in the middle where the user can rest. This would also make a handy spot for sitting outside on a mild day to enjoy the fresh air.

Ramps that are too steep are dangerous, so construct yours carefully. Design one with a maximum of 1-inch raise for each foot length. Even better is a length of 20-inches for every 1-inch vertical rise.

A minimum width of 42-inches is advised; allow a clearance of at least 60-inches long and 60-inches wide for landings; a landing at the end of the ramp and another at the top works best.

Ramp Safety Features

Guardrails 18-inches from the ramp floor that run along both sides will keep people and wheelchairs safely on track. Also install 2-inch high edging along the ramp floor. Handrail height should be 30 to 32-inches high; extend the railing at least 12-inches beyond the ramp at both ends. Handrails made from wood work best; metal is difficult to hold during cold weather, and can be uncomfortably hot on sunny days.

Create ramps with a nonskid surface. To keep a wood ramp from becoming slippery in damp weather, paint the ramp with polyurethane to which sand has been added, and then place grit tapes horizontally across the ramp at spaced intervals. Use a broom to brush a concrete ramp before it hardens to create a roughened texture.

A set of stairs off the ramp’s top landing will allow persons who prefer to use stairs quicker access to the house entry port. Benches near entrances provide space for persons to sit down objects they are carrying and rest. Sliding safety glass doors that open to a wood or concrete platform with a maximum slope of 1% will provide convenient access to the backyard.

Building a safe ramp is more difficult than you might think, and therefore best left to experienced professionals. They will not only incorporate a safe, user-friendly design, but will be alert to possible safety hazards such as nearby trees that drop leaves or pods that would become slippery in damp weather. They can also construct the ramp so that water doesn’t pool on its surface.

The following online resources offer guidelines on ramp construction:

The Canadian Health Network The Canadian Health Network is not a building code; it is a public health agency. Among other things, they are committed to improved accessibility conditions for persons with limited mobility.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – ADA is not a building code. It is a civil rights act offering guidelines for adequate accessibility features; for improved quality of life for persons with mobility limitations.

< Chapter 2 (Building Codes and Permits)  |  Chapter 4 (Project Planning) >