Incorporating Universal Design Is A Great Investment For Homeowners

Universal Design creates an environment accessible by all people, creating a home that functions seamlessly for all family members regardless of age or physical limitations. It makes a home more “visitable” and allows homeowners to age in place rather than move elsewhere to meet a changing physical need. The Harrell Remodeling Design + Build team can incorporate Universal Design features as part of a complete home remodel, or one room at a time. Explore our gallery for inspiration on how Universal Design works beautifully in residential homes.

What Is Universal Design?
Universal Design is a broad description that really means “human-centered” design, calling attention to the importance of supporting a homeowner’s unique surroundings, activities, and lifestyle in a functional, comfortable and visually attractive way.

One way to think about universal design theory is to imagine a front door that has a tall brick wall in front of the opening. Sure, some people might be able to scale the wall and easily enter the house, but the vast majority of people would find it challenging. Now, imagine the wall has a door placed in the center to allow an easier access. Even better, imagine the door opens automatically for maximum accessibility and ease. This is the spirit surrounding universal design.

According to remodeling professionals, the concept of universal design continues to grow in popularity among homeowners, remodelers and designers, and will be a major element in the remodeling world as the population ages.

Genie Nowicki is a senior designer at San Francisco Bay Area-based Harrell Remodeling, and a 20-year expert in the study and application of universal design practices. She explained the value and importance of universal design cannot be overstated in today’s American home.

Universal design is really about how we make homes universally safe, comfortable, and useable for everyone.

“Universal design is really about how we make homes universally safe, comfortable, and useable for everyone. This could mean Magic Johnson who is seven feet tall and his wife who is five feet tall, and how to address this challenge when designing a kitchen. Or it could be that we have an extended family living in a home and grandma would love to help with the dishes or baking cookies, but she needs to sit down while doing these things and the counter tops are too tall for her. Universal design layouts can also addresses physical challenges like the teenager who broke his foot playing basketball and can’t get up the stairs to the only shower in the house. Or aunt Susie can’t visit because she uses a walker and there are six stairs from the carport to the house. These are real life situations I see on a regular basis,” said Genie.

Obviously universal design should be a major consideration for homeowner contemplating remodeling a living room, kitchen, or bathroom. However, Genie explained making a home more comfortable and universally accessible does not necessarily have to involve remodeling. It can incorporate really simple things like replacing hardware.

Evaluate Your Own Home
The best way to evaluate your own house for universal functionality is to start from where you drive up, and think about how all the people that visit will you will approach the house.
  • Are there stairs?
  • Are there handrails?
  • Is there a gravel or cobblestone path?

I always try to tell people to incorporate universal design elements as part of any design work.

“I always try to tell people to incorporate universal design elements as part of any design work. For example, if you are putting in a new door, why not put in a 36-inch wide door instead of a 32-inch door. It makes it easier to move furniture and is more accessible for a wheelchair. Also, as long as we are adding a new door, let’s talk about adding the universal design element of door handles instead of doorknobs. Then let’s look at the door threshold, and make it lower to accommodate easier access,” said Genie.

Once homeowners begin to become aware of how universal design can be easily incorporated into any home, they will see countless other examples of where universal design can be incorporated. In fact, Genie explained applying universal design principles is really a trickle-down process that starts small but can quickly grow to be applied in every room of a home.

For The Bathroom
According to Genie, the bathroom is a great place to incorporate universal design elements.

Curbless Showers

Adding a curbless shower base allows the shower to be flush with the bathroom floor. This look can be extremely beautiful and offer easy access for foot and wheelchair traffic.

Hands Free Faucets

Hands-free or touch-activated faucets are becoming incredibly popular, and are available in many different styles that are elegant and reflective of individual tastes. However, these sensor-activated faucets also provide easy use for everyone including children. Also, these faucets have an automatic shut-off feature that turns off the flow of water after a designated period of time.

Grab Bars

One of the best ways to ensure safety in the bathroom for people of all ages is to install grab bars in the tub, shower, or even next to the toilet. These bars provide safety and support for anyone. Again, grab bar manufacturers have an expanded their design choices for consumers that are decorative and functional.

Bathtub Seating Area

There is nothing like a good bathtub experience. However, adding a small seating area on the edge of the bathtub makes it so much easier to transfer in and out of the tub. This feature can also be great for young children who need to be supervised or an older adult who needs an easier way to enter the tub.

For The Kitchen
Genie explained that the kitchen is another great area to incorporate universal design elements. She recommended these strategies for adding functionality and accessibility in the kitchen:


Today’s appliances have taken a page from the universal design pros and now include designs that are easy to use and universally accessible. For example, dishwashers and refrigerators can now be built into drawer spaces. In addition, many dishwashers now use drawers to load dishes instead of the pull down door models. This design eliminates bending over to load dishes.

Instead of installing an oven that has pull down doors, universal design centered ovens use doors that open sideways and have roll-out shelves that are safer and easier to use.


Tall countertops that have no space underneath can be difficult for many people. Therefore, Genie recommended low countertops and sinks that make it easier to use for children or someone who is in a wheelchair. In addition, rollout shelves or drawers make it easier to see and reach items stored in lower cabinets.

Hands-free Faucets

Like hands-free faucets in the bathroom, incorporating touch-activated faucets provide ease of use and are great for cooks who do not want to contaminate the faucet with germs.

For sure, universal design will continue to gain popularity among homeowners in the future and is a very important consideration for anyone planning to remodel their house.

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