Universal design

Universal design is a new and popular approach to housing design that plans for every stage of life to be accommodated in your home. This type of design plans to accommodate for young children, house guests, older age, limited mobility, and other changing needs to make your home comfortable throughout your lifetime. While universal design is most affordable and useful when built into the house at the beginning, many of the design improvements can be retrofitted into existing buildings.
Universal design should accommodate for people regardless of:

  • Upper body movement, strength, and/or sensation
  • Lower body movement, strength, and/or sensation
  • Balance
  • Vision
  • Hearing
  • Cognition and memory
  • Activity tolerances
  • Speech and/or communication
  • Chemical sensitivities
  • Sensory tolerance
  • Needs for caregiver assistance
  • Extremes in height or weight

Questions to ask yourself

If you are buying or building a house, it is important to make sure it meets your future needs. Some questions that you should ask yourself about your future include:

  • How long do you expect to live in the house?
  • What age range will the occupants of the house be?
  • Do you or anyone in the house have special needs or requirements or reduced mobility?
  • Is there a possibility of special requirements or reduced mobility for anyone in the house in the future?
  • Do you need space for hobbies, special interests, entertainment, working from home, or children to play?
  • Do you regularly have visitors and guests?
  • Do you have family or friends that live with you for extended periods? Will they in the future?
  • How many car parks or parking spaces do you need?
  • Will you be able to maintain and clean a house of that size in the future?

Considering these questions can help you understand what your current needs are and what you will need in the future as your needs change. Taking into consideration future health or mobility factors may help you to stay in your home as you age.

Adding features to existing homes

While universal design is most effective when built into the house, if you already live in a home, there are some features that you can easily add to make it more universally accessible. These may include:

  • Changing the doorknobs and window closures to lever handles
  • Installing easy-to-use drawer handles and runners/slides
  • Changing light bulbs or installing extra lighting to ensure it is appropriate in all areas
  • Installing grab rails in bathroom areas and hallways
  • Laying non-slip flooring
  • Making sure doors in small bathroom areas open outwards
  • Installing light switches and telephone outlets by beds
  • Moving light switches, socket outlets, and door handles to easily reached uniform heights
  • Changing taps to single lever taps

New buildings

When built into a new home, universal design can ensure everyone who uses the home can enjoy all of its features regardless of age or ability. Some basic features of universal design include:

  • Wider accessways, hallways, and thresholds
  • Level (stepless) transitions from inside to outside
  • Large enough rooms for wheelchairs to turn around
  • Lower window heights
  • Doorways that are at least 810mm wide to fit a wheelchair
  • A wet area or level access shower
  • Grab bars in bathrooms and hallways
  • Appropriate bench heights in the kitchen
  • Kitchen, bathroom, and at least one sleeping area at entry level

Smarter homes

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment have developed a guide called Smarter Homes that covers what you may need to consider when building a home to meet your needs in the future. The questions in this guide may help you start thinking about what you need to consider when designing a house.

Websites of interest

  • Lifemark has a home score rating that endorses houses with a Lifetime Design
  • You can read more about universal design here
  • Information about funding retrofitted disability housing modifications can be found on the Ministry of Health website
  • BRANZ has a universal design cost calculator to estimate how much it will cost to add features to a new build or to retrofit