Brand new website coming soon. Learn MoreClose

Applying Universal Design Principles to a Housing Unit

The more the physical design of homes and housing units makes aging in place easy and affordable, the greater will be their attraction and potential resale value. Many of the features described in this section can be incorporated inexpensively into new housing. However, these features provide increased stability in neighbourhoods and result in a more efficient use of infrastructure and resources.

Traditionally, universal design or barrier-free design was considered a specialized concern for a minority of housing providers. As a result, an increasing number of buildings — as well as cities and neighbourhoods — now are in need of expensive modifications or additions to make them accessible to people with disabilities or to those who want to remain in their homes and communities as they age.

Applying universal design at the unit scale will ensure that buildings or products can be used by all people to the greatest extent possible, without the need for later adaptations. When the principles are applied effectively, an accessible unit does not look different from a standard unit, making it attractive and marketable to people who do not need or want features that emphasize differing levels of ability.


In private dwellings, entries should be located near parking. Ramps and landings may be desirable; however, people using walking aids may find well-designed steps more comfortable than ramps. Doors should minimize thresholds to avoid tripping hazards. A bench or ledge for placing carried objects while opening the door can be welcome. A covered sitting porch at the entryway offers the possibility of observation and interaction with neighbours, and a canopy or overhang provides shelter during bad weather.

Quick checklist for entries

  • Good lighting at entrance
  • Lever-style door handles
  • No step up into the doorway
  • Covered porch or other protection over exterior door
  • Window to the outside accessible to those seated or standing

Living/Dining Room

Private dining and living rooms need to accommodate activities like watching television, reading, entertaining, playing table games and dining. These rooms must allow for flexible furniture arrangements and adequate space for wheelchairs and walkers. Natural light and views to the outside are psychologically important. Low window sills and a layout that allows seating to be placed against walls rather than windows will facilitate these views. For aging people moving to new residences, the ability to bring their own furniture and other items can allow for an easier transition.


Universal design in the kitchen is critically important — including adequate space for wheelchair movement, removable lower counters, adjustable-height counters to provide for knee space, pull-out or open shelving, or units on castors. Cabinets, appliances and switches should be placed where they are most accessible, including to those in wheelchairs, and plugs should be placed where they are easy to use, with colour contrast to make them easy to find. Under-counter storage with deep drawers is desirable. As a general rule, it is good to locate short-term storage between knee and shoulder heights. Vertically divided refrigerators are also useful, as are full-height pantries and a broom closet. Exposed pipes should be insulated to avoid burns. Lever handles and hands-free faucets are important, and developers may want to consider remote controls for appliances, lighting and windows. Flooring should be non-slip, resilient and cushioned for safety. Additional safety features such as automatic timers or induction cooktops that are always cool to the touch may also appeal to older buyers.20

Quick checklist for kitchens

  • Non-slip flooring
  • Good task lighting
  • Accessible, adjustable storage space
  • Accessible electrical outlets
  • Lever-type faucets
  • Adjustable-height workspace
  • Colour-contrasting cabinets and counters
  • Rounded corners on counters


In addition to sleeping and dressing, bedrooms may be used by older adults for watching television, practising hobbies, doing crafts and reading. Again, windows with low sills are optimal for viewing outside while seated or in bed. An uncluttered furniture arrangement and sufficient space for ease of movement and storage of wheelchairs or walkers when not in use are advisable. Additionally, bedside storage and controls for lights, television and telephone within easy reach of persons in bed are suggested. Possible special needs for getting in and out of bed should be considered, and provision made for later installations.


It is a good idea to plan a large bathroom at the outset, if possible, or to either include a space such as a closet next to the bathroom or install removable cabinets that would allow for a later expansion. In a house of two or more storeys, allowing the option to create a full bathroom on the ground floor can help facilitate aging in place.

Universal design plays a key role in the bathroom and can be achieved by including reinforced mounting points for grab bars, adequate space for wheelchairs, removable lower cabinets, insulated pipes at lower levels and possible roll-in showers with adjustable-height showerheads. Bathtubs are more likely to lead to falls than showers but are enjoyed by many as a relaxing experience. Seats, steps and special tubs that facilitate stepping in and out can be helpful. Controls for showers and tubs should be so that they are accessible from both inside and outside the fixture and temperature-limiting controls to prevent scalding should be installed. A touchless bathroom (where lighting, faucets and toilets are automated) can improve safety, contribute to sustainability and reduce the risk of infection for those with immunity deficiencies. Emergency call systems are also an option and should be installed within reach from all points in the bathroom.21

Quick checklist for bathrooms

  • Non-slip flooring
  • Non-glare lighting
  • Lever-type faucets
  • Adjustable-height shower head
  • Wall reinforcement to allow for grab bars
  • Adjustable-height vanity
  • Standard-height toilet
  • No step up or barrier to entry into shower stall

Storage and Laundry Space

It is important to cater to the particular storage needs that aging adults may require, such as wheelchairs, walkers and electric scooters (including provision for battery recharging). It is desirable to provide plenty of space for items not used on a daily basis and to acknowledge that older people are very attached to items that hold important memories. High shelving or areas that require stooping should be avoided, and lighting provided to storage areas. Storage outside the living unit should be lockable and observable before entry.

Laundry areas require many of the same requirements as kitchens and bathrooms (for example, accessible switches and plugs, non-slip flooring and non-glare lighting). Laundry facilities are best located on the same floor as the living quarters, rather than in a basement. Frontloading machines are preferable to top-loading machines and are also generally more energy-efficient.22

Patio and Balcony

These areas can be very important for aging adults because they provide some private space with access and views to the outdoor environment. It is often preferable to allow for downward as well as horizontal views from balconies. They must provide sufficient space for moveable chairs and tables. Generally, a minimum depth of 1.8 m (6 ft.) for balconies ensures that people can sit facing each other comfortably. Provisions for visual and audio privacy should be considered.

Enclosed sunrooms, particularly if they receive direct sunlight, can be welcome areas for older people (as well as people of any age) who are confined indoors. In the Netherlands, erker windows provide a hybrid space: bay windows with French balcony doors that open inward and retractable awnings to control sunlight.23 Auxiliary security devices can be added to prevent forced entry and enhance the security of patio and balcony doors.

Quick checklist for outdoor space

  • Sliding or French doors wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair
  • Balcony wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair
  • Smooth, low threshold
  • Railing or enclosure that does not restrict the view of a seated person
  • Exterior lighting and electrical outlet

20 For more ideas and tips on accessible kitchen design, see Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Accessible Housing by Design — KitchensPDF

21 For more ideas and tips on accessible bathroom design, see Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Accessible Housing by Design — BathroomsPDF

22 For more ideas and tips on accessible laundry room design, see Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Accessible Housing by Design — AppliancesPDF

23 Regnier, Victor. (1994). Assisted Living Housing for the Elderly: Design Innovations from the United States and Europe. Van Nostrand Reinhold.



Print(opens in a new window)