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Understanding Universal Design

Do you remember when businesses began to install curb-free and step-free access to buildings? This began at the end of the last century because of the American with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). According to this Act, physical barriers impeding access to buildings must be removed wherever they exist.

Making buildings accessible to the physically handicapped actually began in the 1950’s. The American Standards Association, which later became known as The American Standards Institute or ANSI, issued the first accessibility standard in 1961. However, these standards only became enforceable when adopted by state or local entities. Federal legislation progressed throughout the next 30 years culminating in the ADA of 1990.


Aesthetics and Economics Matter

Incorporating barrier free accessibility into structures was expensive and looked ugly, even clinical. Builders noticed that accommodations being made for the disabled actually benefitted the general population. Also, when the required changes were universally applied in structures, they became less expensive and more visually appealing. Pricing for these requirements also declined when builders didn’t have to attach “disability” labels to their structures and greatly enhanced marketability.


These changes became known as Universal Design: The design of products and environments usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.


North Carolina State University’s Principles of Universal Design*


PRINCIPLE ONE: Equitable Use

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.


PRINCIPLE TWO: Flexibility in Use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.


PRINCIPLE THREE: Simple and Intuitive Use

Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.


PRINCIPLE FOUR: Perceptible Information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.


PRINCIPLE FIVE: Tolerance for Error

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.


PRINCIPLE SIX: Low Physical Effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.


PRINCIPLE SEVEN: Size and Space for Approach and Use

Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility.


Universal Design is an integral component to the two topics we’ve recently covered, Aging in Place and The Longevity Economy.


Note how the Universal Design features recommended by the NAHB Remodelers apply not only to older people but to all:


Floors and bathtubs with non-slip surfaces help everyone stay on their feet. Non-slip surfaces are not just for people who are frail. The same goes for handrails on steps and grab bars in bathrooms.

Thresholds that are flush with the floor make it easy for a wheelchair to get through a doorway. They also keep others from tripping.

Good lighting helps people with poor vision. And it helps everyone else see better, too.GettyImages-638157966.jpg

Lever door handles and rocker light switches are great for people with poor hand strength. But others like them too. For example, how grateful are you for lever handles and rocker light switches when your arms are full of packages? Once you have that experience standard knobs or standard switches will become a thing of the past in your world.

For a comprehensive look at Universal Design in housing and how it transcends barrier-free, accessible, and industry standard housing, checkout this article by Ronald Mace.

What does Universal Design mean to you? Ultimately higher profit potential. Have you ever watched TV shows Flip or Flop or Fixer Upper? Besides the actor’s personalities, the driving force behind each show is design. Why? Because people are paying for sensible, usable and aesthetically pleasing design.

Appeal to your customer’s emotional side through design. Maybe a little harder to do when talking to a customer about replacing a water heater. (But not impossible. Remind the customer how it feels to run out of hot water when he or she is still covered in soap suds). There are other products that have more aesthetic appeal to the customer and many others that can make life better and easier. And it doesn’t hurt when some of these products show up on a popular TV show like Fixer Upper.

*“The Center for Universal Design (1997). The Principles of Universal Design, Version 2.0. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University.”



Topics: Insider, Building a Business, Goal Setting, Motivation, Plumbing

Posted by Dave Rothacker on May 21, 2017 12:00:00 AM

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