Our Top Ten Universal Design Recommendations

by Bruce Montgomery Ph.D. December 19, 2016

Our Top Ten Universal Design Recommendations

Universal design is an approach to design that works to ensure that products and buildings can be used by virtually everyone, regardless of their level of ability or disability. The term "universal design" was coined by the late Ronald L. Mace, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects. "The universal design concept increases the supply of usable housing by including universal features in as many houses as possible," he said, "and allows people to remain in their homes as long as they like." Source: The Center for an Accessible Society

Universal design is a common-sense approach to home design, construction and remodeling. Many of its components are applications of the Accessibility Requirements of the Fair Housing Act.

The principles of universal design are based on the premise that everyone who lives in or visits a home is best served by safe and comfortable accommodations. Although it often costs the same or a little extra to incorporate the principles of universal design, universal design has not been universally adopted.

In 2006, the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University published a list of Universal Design Features in Housing. Rather than recite the entire list, I offer my top ten universal design recommendations in no order. I like all ten and wish that they were included in every house.

  1. Colorful, properly placed and correctly installed grab bars
  2. Minimum of 36” wide doors - everywhere
  3. Flooring that allows for easy mobility with a walker or wheel chair
  4. Electrical outlets, light switches and thermostats in accessible locations
  5. Variable height (28“- 42“) work surfaces such as countertops, sinks, and or cooktops, adjustable in 2-inch increments
  6. Five feet minimum turning space for a wheel chair in each room
  7. No thresholds (differences in floor heights) – anywhere – especially at doorways
  8. No stairs or steps – anywhere
  9. Reinforced walls for grab bars – especially around toilets, bathtubs and shower stalls
  10. All functional living spaces (accessible bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room and entry/exit to outdoors) on the ground level

    I hope you can envision how each of these items will make a home safer, more inviting and accessible for all. There may be other universal design items that are more important to you depending upon your daily living activities and abilities.

    Per Ron Mace, the founder of universal design:

    The concept (of universal design) promotes designing every product and building so that everyone can use them to the greatest extent possible – every faucet, light fixture, shower stall, public telephone, or entrance. Universal design is a revolutionary but practical leap forward in the evolution of building and design procedures. When designers and manufacturers seize this concept, universal design will become common, convenient, and profitable. Source: Universal Design: Housing for the Lifespan of all People, by Ron Mace for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1998 as published by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University.


    Bruce Montgomery Ph.D.
    Bruce Montgomery Ph.D.


    Dr. Bruce Montgomery is a licensed building contractor in Michigan and Florida. He is a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist as designated by the National Association of Home Builders. He has also achieved an Executive Certificate in Home Modification from the University of Southern California. He has a wide ranging educational background, including a Master of Science degree in Entomology, with a Master of Science degree in Forestry and a Ph.D. in educational administration.