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Accessible home design, of universal design, is a rising trend today, due to an aging population and an increasing number of people with disabilities. The University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability reports that over 35 percent of people over 65 have a disability.

Key areas to incorporate Universal Design in the home

  1. Windows and Doors
  2. Kitchen Design
  3. Accessible Bathrooms
  4. Outlets, Switches, and Automation
  5. Storage


Today, accessible housing is now referred to as having a universal design. Effective universal design principles focus on usability and livability that requires the least amount of action or interaction.

A home incorporating universal design principles offers a good alternative for your property, zoning permitted, for an older family who wants to maintain a respectable level of independence.

What are the benefits of Universal Design for the home?

The Institute of Universal Design notes these core ideas supporting accessible housing: 

  1. Include accessible and barrier-free design
  2. Make use of adaptable or adjustable features
  3. Use consumer products that are widely available
  4. Make houses easier and safer for everyone to use
  5. Anticipate future needs of residents
  6. Support the independent living, home health care, and aging-in-place movements
  7. Respond to common market trends and human needs
  8. Create a market for more universally usable products

Also, The Fair Housing Act Design Manual provides helpful guidance for builders and developers of multi-family housing units.

These house kits can be customized for maximum accessibility





While it isn’t mandated for single-family home construction, the regulations provide a good framework to keep in mind when designing an accessible home.

Be sure to check your state, county or city building codes, which may have different requirements. Generally, the more stringent code should be followed.

Throughout the home

An open concept floor plans in a small home makes accessibility easiest, and the upkeep is easier. At a minimum, routes throughout the home should have a minimum width of 42 inches. Rooms should have a turning space of five feet.

Non-slip flooring is a good idea. There are no standard measures of slip resistance. If considering carpeting, it should have a low pile (no thick shag carpeting!) and require firm backing.  Cushions or pads also must be firm or avoided for greater firmness. Also, there should be a minimal transition from a hard surface to the carpet.

Windows and Doors

illustration of universal design for ramps

Your front door should have a low door threshold that helps reduce the possibility of tripping. Ideally, the entry area should eventually accommodate a ramp with minimum 1:12 slope, meaning the ramp gradually rises one foot for every 12 feet of distance.

Interior and exterior doors should be 36-inches-wide, or even better, 42 inches,  to accommodate wheelchairs, walkers or other mobility assistance. Casement windows would feature locks reachable from a seated position.

illustration of universal design for door Width and pocket doors

Consider pocket doors over standard hinged doors because they are more easily opened and closed while seated in a wheelchair.

Latches, drawers, and cabinets should have loop handles that are easy to use and require little flexibility or strength. Examples include lever door handles, magnetic latches over mechanical ones.

Accessible Kitchen Design

illustration of universal design for drawers and cabinets

Kitchens can be particularly hazardous areas for people with disabilities, so be sure to pay extra close attention to this room in your home.

Features of an accessible kitchen

  • Use loop handles instead of knobs on cabinets and drawers. These handles are more accessible to people with limited dexterity.
  • To accommodate wheelchairs, a kitchen counter should be only 30 inches high and have knee space below them.
  • Not all counters should be the lower, 30-inch height. Standard countertops accommodate other residents or future homeowners.
  • Side-hinged ovens and microwaves are easier to open and leave more space to maneuver around. Likewise, side-by-side refrigerators make it easier to maneuver around the open doors.
illustration of universal design for kitchen stove and counter height

Keeping as many appliances under counter height is a key accessibility principle. Under the counter, drawer-style refrigerators are widely available.  

Electrically adjustable counters are an option but may be cost-prohibitive.


Accessible Bathroom Design

Illustration of universal design for shower

Bathrooms, because of their slick floors and various fixtures, can be particularly tough to design for accessibility.

Features of an accessible bathroom

  • Just as in the kitchen, sink vanities should be lower and include knee space.
  • Single-lever plumbing fixtures are best (i.e., one-knob controls both hot and cold).
  • Faucets should contain anti-scalding valves.
  • The bathroom should be equipped with reinforced grab bars (usually in the shower and next to the toilet).
  • A “curbless” shower eliminates the 2-4 inch step typical in most showers.
  • Depending on the needs of the resident, the shower would include space for a folding, fixed or removable seat.
  • The toilet height should be 17-18 inches from the floor to the seat.

Finally, devoting more space for the bathroom in a small home is considered luxurious, but it also makes accessibility easier for someone with physical disabilities. This means you can simultaneously make a bathroom more accessible and add more value to the home.

Outlets, Switches, and Automation

Accessibility - Electrical outlet highth

Install electrical outlets, at a minimum, 18 inches above the floor, so there is less bending to reach them. Be sure to comply with the minimum building code standards in your jurisdiction.

Light switches should be set at between 36-44 inches above floor maximum, and thermostats should be mounted at 48 inches at a maximum.

Extension cords can be a tripping hazard. Accessible home design often accounts for this by including more outlets than normal on a house, to lower the chance of needing an extension cord for a lamp, television, or other devices.

A smart home, controlled through the Internet of Things (IoT) is a great advancement. Now lights, thermostats, outside door locks, and other appliances can be voice-controlled using Amazon’s Echo or Google Home. While widely popular, a smart home has huge benefits for accessibility, especially when mobility is a concern.  

Also, motion-activated lighting is another solution.

The electrical-service box should be installed at a maximum height of 54 inches.


Accessibility - Closet design

At least half of the closet storage could be reached from a seated position. A modular closet system can allow for custom positioning of shelves at rods. Open shelves and lower rods are smart closet choices for accessibility.

Cabinets throughout the home should have adjustable shelves.


Typically, a smaller home is a smarter choice for accessibility. Smaller homes typically ensure that various rooms are close together, avoiding long hallways and stairs.

Additionally, small homes decrease the amount of needed cleaning and general upkeep. Maintenance and cleaning can be extremely difficult, and a smaller home better empowers independent living.

In the end, accessible home design isn’t a groundbreaking philosophy. It’s taking universal design principles and applying them thoughtfully to our homes. As The Institute of Human Centered Design puts it, accessible home design “is not a new science, a style, or unique in any way. It requires only an awareness of need and market and a commonsense approach to making everything we design and produce usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible.”