Originally published in STIR®
Understanding the value of aging in place, but unwilling to compromise on aesthetics, baby boomers are bringing the principles of attractive universal design to the forefront.

When it comes to their homes, baby boomers operate in the way for which they're best known: with a blend of savvy and whimsy. They look toward the future with optimism and realism, taking aging in stride while understanding the merits of planning ahead. Boomers want a home in which they can grow older comfortably – and with beauty, style and grace. It's no wonder, then, that this generation is helping to bring universal design to the forefront.

According to the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., the intent of universal design is to simplify life by making products and buildings usable by as many people as possible. The center has outlined seven principles of universal design:

  1. Equitable Use: The design does not disadvantage or stigmatize any group of users.
  2. Flexibility in Use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  3. Simple, Intuitive Use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level.
  4. Perceptible Information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for Error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  6. Low Physical Effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue.
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user's body size, posture, or mobility.

Unfortunately, universal design is still sometimes saddled with a reputation for unattractive institutional-looking results, complete with images of cold fluorescent lighting and white plastic grab bars. Rather, the opposite is true: Thinking about potential restrictions in an environment can help designers create even more beautiful spaces. "Aesthetics can be enhanced by making sure you have all the right constraints clearly defined from the beginning," said architect U. Sean Vance, interim director at the Center for Universal Design. "It gives you the (opportunity) to design more freely."

That's music to many boomers' ears, as they aren't apt to sacrifice form for the sake of function. Chris Dreith, a certified kitchen and bath designer and member of SEN Design Group, a national organization of kitchen and bath professionals, has been implementing universal design principles in homes for 20 years. As the availability of products has increased, so, too, have the aesthetics surrounding universal design. Dreith recently remodeled a home for a married couple, one of whom had to start using a wheelchair. The master bathroom in particular became a showcase of stunning design matched with high function. Dreith added a pocket door with accessible handles; a wide, doorless shower that featured a heat lamp overhead; a tumbled limestone floor that adds both traction and beauty; accessible valves with preset temperature controls; a wall toilet from Geberit; and a bench made of Corian.

The resulting space is a lesson in smart, striking design. "The bathroom is designed well enough that you don't have to be in a wheelchair to be comfortable in it," Dreith said. "There are a lot of people who want large showers with no door and multiple showerheads. It's very livable for everybody."

Dreith's project also shows what's possible in existing homes – a concept that many baby boomers can appreciate. "Most boomers have value in the houses they've got," Dreith said. "They like their neighborhood, and the house might have really good bones. They just need to redo some elements so they can live there more comfortably."

Such elements often include typical features associated with universal design: one-level living, curbless showers, accessible placement of outlets and light switches, and wide doorways and hallways. But thanks to the ingenuity of manufacturers, architects and designers, many innovative products and concepts are meeting boomers' expectations of design that's pretty and practical.

Here's a sampling of what's on the marketplace:

  • Pull-out cabinet shelves with cutout bowl holders.
  • Front-loading washers and dryers.
  • Dishwashers and ranges at raised heights to avoid back strain.
  • Designer towel rods that double as safety bars.
  • Ovens with heat indicators and controls on the front, along with doors that slide open instead of pull down.
  • Keyless entry into homes.
  • Closet systems with adjustable shelves.
  • Hardware such as lever door handles made from a variety of materials to match any décor.
  • Open floor plans that include extra floor space.
  • Sinks that turn on with pedal valves.
  • Remote control-operated exhaust hoods.
  • Faucets that provide instantly hot filtered water.

In addition to these creative items and ideas, the effective use of color needs to be considered in a home that touts universal design principles. Why? Because it's common for the aging eye to experience reduced contrast sensitivity, which makes it difficult to differentiate similar patterns and colors. "A lot of comfort of use can be created through environments that are more visually pleasing and easier to discern," said Michael Pause, a professor who teaches color and light theory at North Carolina State.

To that end, the simple use of bolder color contrast becomes crucial. "When we talk of color contrast, it's the separation of lights and darks," Pause added. "It's the notion of being able to distinguish between two surfaces." For example, different colors used in kitchen countertops and cabinets can help people with declining vision discern where one surface ends and the next begins. Other areas of the home that can benefit from color contrast and make for easier navigating include baseboards, stair edges, ramp edges, door moldings and showers and bathtubs.

Color, inventive products and attentive designs can work together to beautifully create a sense of space and place, all the while contributing to the home's livability for years to come. And that is the kind of thoughtful planning that baby boomers have grown to expect – and appreciate.

For more information about universal design, go to the Resources section of the site.