What are Universal Design Principles?

Universal Design, as it applies to construction and remodeling, refers to design that accommodates all ages, abilities, and sizes. With homeowners in their 50s and 60s tending to find their “forever home,” Universal Design has steadily become more prominent in remodeling, even if they’re unfamiliar with the principles.

The concept of Universal Design has been known to design and architecture professionals since the 1980s. It is a framework for the design of living and working spaces and products benefiting the widest possible range of people in the widest range of situations without special or separate design. Universal Design is human-centered design, accommodating people of all sizes, ages and abilities. [1]

In this article you’ll learn the history, principles, and practical application of universal design. By the end you’ll know if a Universal Design remodel is right for you or a family member.

What is Universal Design Remodeling?


The 7 Principles of Universal Design were developed in 1997 by a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers, led by the late Ronald Mace at North Carolina State University. The purpose of the principles is to guide the design of environments, products, and communications.

Ronald Mace founded The Center for Universal Design: a national research, information, and technical assistance center that evaluates, develops, and promotes accessible and universal design in housing, buildings, outdoor and urban environments, and related products.

According to the Center for Universal Design, the principles “may be applied to evaluate existing designs, guide the design process and educate both designers and consumers about the characteristics of more usable products and environments.”

The 7 Principles of Universal Design [2]

Principle 1: Equitable Use

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

Principle 2: Flexibility in Use

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

Principle 3: 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 4: Perceptible Information

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

Principle 5: Tolerance for Error

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

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort

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

Principle 7: 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.

Why Would Someone Want a Universal Design Remodel?

There are myriad reasons someone would turn to universal design:

Physical Limitations

We can all relate personally to a friend or family member who has had to overcome some form of physical limitation:

  • Physical deformities
  • Degenerative diseases
  • Mobility and balance issues
  • Visual impairment
  • Basic age-related wear-and-tear

It applies, as well, to anyone with sudden health changes, for example, due to accidents, stroke, or spinal cord injury.

Universal Design can provide easier, enjoyable living for all.

To Facilitate In-Home Care

Assisted living facilities aren’t for everyone. For people who prefer in-home nursing care, Universal Design solutions can make it considerably easier for the homeowners and the care providers alike.

To Plan for the Future

First, some numbers and nerd stuff:

CIA.gov. Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved February 11, 2020. Public Domain.

U.S. Population 1935-2020
U.S. Population 1935-2020 [3]
U.S. Population Change 1935-2020
U.S. Population Change 1935-2020 [3]

Right now, 15% of Johnson County’s population is 65 and older; about 1 percent lower than the national average.

Right on their tails are the 45–64-year-olds who will all be past retirement age over the next 20 years. That’s a full quarter of the population of both Johnson County, Kansas, and the entire United States!

Age and Sex Composition in the United States: 2019.
The United States Census Bureau.
Bureau, US Census. “Age and Sex Composition in the United States: 2019”. The United States Census Bureau. Retrieved August 15, 2021.

Because it’s Convenient!

Some universal design features just make good sense. Once you bring them into your home, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them. For example:

  • At 40-something, I love my curbless shower with its body-drenching rain head and body sprays, convenient bench, and non-slip tile.
  • I love my rocker switches and door levers (instead of knobs) everywhere. I can open doors and turn on lights with elbows and even an occasional knee!
  • A ramp in the garage to get to – and through – the interior door instead of two pain-in-the-ass steps? Just fabulous!
  • Universal Design isn’t just for old folk; it’s incredibly convenient for homeowners of all age and capabilities! You don’t need to have a bad back to appreciate elevated dishwashers and in-wall ovens.
  • Good lighting helps people with poor vision. And it helps everyone else see better, too.
Universal design bathroom with curbless shower, bench, and grab bars

Who Needs Universal Design Remodeling?

Not only those suffering from the above ailments, but also anyone, of any age, who wants to age-in-place in their forever-home!

Where is Universal Design Most Useful?

Entryways and bathrooms get the most attention because of commercial ADA requirements. But in residential kitchens and transitional spaces (halls, pass-throughs, deck, or balcony doorways) are also incredibly useful spaces to apply Universal Design principles.


  • Minimum door width of 28”, up to 36” preferred
  • Wall-mount vanity or lavatory with 33” counter height
  • Curbless (“zero-entry”) showers with channel drains
  • Generous built-in shower benches with grab bars for support
  • ADA-height toilets


  • Counters at varying heights to accommodate all who use it (33”, 36”, even 40” for the extra tall)
  • 9”H x 6”D cabinet toe kick spaces to accommodate wheelchair footrests
  • ‘D’ or bar-shaped cabinet door pulls
  • A minimum 5-foot turning radius throughout the kitchen allows a person who uses a wheelchair the ability to do a 360-degree turnaround.
  • Side-hinged ovens, elevated dishwashers with all controls at waist-height make them usable by everyone
Bosch Benchmark Series oven ADA-compliant

Horizontally opening ovens at waist-height aren’t just a convenience for the wheelchair-bound, they’re incredibly useful for anyone who likes a more commercial-style baking arrangement.

Pictured here are the Bosch 30″ Benchmark series with SideOpen doors and TFT controls.

TIP: To meet ADA regulations, wall ovens controls cannot be installer higher than 48” or lower than 15″.

Elevated and ADA-compliant dishwashers eliminate the inconvenience of loading and unloading the bottom rack for anyone with sever back pain or other mobility issues

Halls and Stairways

  • Halls should be a minimum of 36”, up tp 42″ is even better
  • For multi-story homes, when an elevator isn’t practical, stair depth should be increased (11” or more preferred) and tread rise should be reduced


  • Ramps for all entrances
  • Level transitions across all thresholds to reduce wheel resistance and tripping hazards

When Should You Consider Universal Design Remodeling?

The sooner, the better.

As people plan to remodel or build a new home, independence, accessibility, safety, convenience, and usability features need to be top of mind in the design phase. Deciding on changes before construction begins will cost considerably less than remodeling for Universal Design again later.

Can Universal Design improve your quality of life? Contact John at 913-214-6211, or on MortiseAndMiter.com today!


1. Rosemarie Rossetti, Ph.D., 07 August 2017. “A House that Works for Everyone.” Boomer Magazine.

2. Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (no date). “The 7 Principles.” Retrieved on 23 November 2021 from www.universaldesign.ie/.

3. Central Intelligence Agency (updated 17 November 2021). “United States: People and Society.” www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/united-states/#people-and-society.