Inclusive Design Allows For Accessibility From the Start

Ask about creating a home to accommodate aging in place or accessibility or universal design — all phrases that have been used to describe what is now dubbed inclusive design — and chances are grab bars will pop up in the discussion.

A woman putting a bowl of vegetables in the top compartment of a refrigerator.

This GE microwave drawer is part of an inclusive design that provides easier accessibility for people with disabilities and those of all ages.

But grab bars are probably one of the last items you should consider, says Sheri Gold, GE Appliances National Showroom and Design Manager, Monogram Design Center. 

This change highlights how much ideas about inclusive design have evolved.

Now, instead of considering ways to potentially adapt a space, builders and designers are looking to make homes user friendly for a broad swath of the population. Rather than being designed with a specific limitation in mind, the goal of inclusive design is to enable anyone to use a space. And compared to earlier generations, consumers have an entirely new attitude when it comes to ensuring a home will accommodate a range of ages. 

“Society is kind of looking ahead as to what is coming down the pike and knowing they might have parents who are moving in or whatever those issues are,” says Gold. “If it makes sense and still looks good aesthetically, they’ll do it. And grab bars are one of those things you can frankly add at any time. But, flooring and cabinetry and door width are much harder.”

Already, the width of interior doorways has inched up to 32 inches and 34 is considered a minimum size for senior housing. In a new community geared toward empty nesters in Flower Mound, Texas, Grenadier Homes has followed a principle they describe as a “universal lifestyle design” with wider doorways, spacious hallways and easily accessible bathrooms.

Flex rooms are another new addition to many homes. In a new development in Arlington Heights, Ill., Lexington Homes includes a flex space in some models. “Until five or six years ago, we wouldn’t have thought about that,” says Jeff Benach, co-principal of 
Lexington Homes, noting the rooms have lots of potential uses as an office, den, play room or, with the addition of a full bath, a first-floor bedroom.

This represents a fundamental shift in the industry. When Gold first got into the business in the 1980s, she says there was no such phrase as universal design. “It was ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) or handicap design. Back in the early days, if you were doing a handicap-accessible unit, you had to have nine-inch tall toe kicks (the space at the bottom of cabinets in kitchens and bathrooms). When you walked in, you knew that’s what it was for. It screamed at you,” she explains.

Now, accessibility is simply seen as good design. “You can walk in and you wouldn’t know if someone didn’t tell you that a space was designed to accommodate those things,” she adds.

Although you might occasionally see a nine-inch space at the bottom of a cabinet, usually it’s because that’s been requested, Gold says. “It’s because some people feel it’s kind of cool looking in very minimalist kitchens. Or they’ll not have a toe kick at all and they’ll do a floating installation where there’s a gap under there and it just looks like it’s floating or attached to the wall.”

Gold is part of a vanguard of designers and manufacturers who are rethinking many aspects of the kitchen. “As designers, we’re all looking for ways to make kitchens more accessible from the get-go,” she shares.

For example, in today’s kitchens, the old work triangle doesn’t work anymore. Instead there are multiple work triangles and zones and the way a good designer parses out space is by asking lots of questions.

“You ask lifestyle questions. Just because something works for one family it doesn’t necessarily work for another. If people are hanging out, are they cooking with you or just watching and chatting? If so, where do you want them?”

And, she says, it’s no different for someone in a wheelchair. Clearly if someone is in a wheelchair, you have to allow room for them to move around, but in the end, Gold says, the questions are the same. “Are you going to be entertaining and how many friends do you have over? Are you the person who cooks at the range? You take all those into account when you are designing.”

Currently, GE is taking a deep dive into aging in place and appliance design. Gold describes the mindset as being able to solve all of those issues for that certain group of folks, while also creating something the rest of us can (and will want to) use too.

Lou Lenzi, director, industrial design, GE Appliances and Lighting, says, “Our whole goal is: what can we do as appliance manufacturers that can address the needs of older adults.”

Mobility is the only factor that plays into appliance design today. Hearing impairment, visual issues, problems with reach and strength are all considerations. A number of brands along with GE are also looking into the way doors open to make access easier. From drawer-sized units to a position raised off of the floor, dishwashers are configured to meet a range of needs. Even the racks in the oven play into accessibility. “Our racks are full extension and can hold up to 33 or 34 pounds,” says Gold.

Going forward, Lenzi says GE is working with Georgia Tech’s Home Lab on issues related to aging, especially preparation of meals. Meal prep and the ability to feed oneself, he says, “is one of the barriers to aging in place.”

“This is an area that really requires that first critical step,” into what are the real world obstacles, he explains. For example, the solution to visual issues requires more than just cranking up the wattage. “Often there is a deeper solution that might involve other variables,” Lenzi says. On a broader scope he says it could be connectivity or hardware or something else.

Camilla McLaughlin is an award-winning writer specializing in house and home. Her work has appeared in leading online and print publications, such as Yahoo! Real Estate, Unique Homes magazine and Realtor Magazine. She has also freelanced for the Associated Press.

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