Architect's book focuses on 'universal design'

Universal UclickSeptember 6, 2013 

  • About the book The Accessible Home Deborah Pierce

    Taunton Press, 234 pages

The changes brought about by illness, accident or aging, and the ways homes can be designed or adapted to them, are the focus of Deborah Pierce’s “The Accessible Home.”

Pierce, an architect, offers a comprehensive look at design features that remove barriers and improve access, and that make for greater independence and a better quality of life. But more important, she uses the book’s introductory sections to provide a broad context that is about people rather than about buildings.

Probably our most iconic cultural image of “disability” involves a person in a wheelchair trying to cope with unfriendly obstacles such as curbs, stairs, narrow doorways or out-of-reach storage cabinets. Such a narrow definition of the term is decidedly incomplete, as Pierce explains. While extreme or permanent disabilities might be relatively rare, other limitations affect one out of four persons at some point, and not all the issues are related to mobility.

Conditions such as partial or complete loss of hearing or eyesight, for example, are far more common than severe spinal cord injuries or other limitations that prevent walking, and they can present numerous difficulties in coping with everyday tasks. Degenerative neurological conditions can affect balance, space perception and muscle control. Joint pain or arthritis can make it difficult to use doorknobs, faucet controls, cabinet latches and other common hardware.

Even ordinary decreases in strength or flexibility can render an otherwise cherished home unfriendly, and Pierce notes that most homeowners queried want to “age in place,” that is, to stay in their home even if they become disabled.

As Pierce writes, the best features of universal design are user-friendly to all persons and don’t give the home an institutional look or a makeshift appearance of improvised afterthoughts that detract from a home’s aesthetics or value. The details of the best designs are many and varied, but some features are common to nearly all the homes featured:

Provide wider traffic areas: Hallways, door openings and other “corridor” spaces should be wide enough (typically 36 inches minimum) to accommodate a wheelchair.

Keep sight lines open: Connections between rooms should be as open as possible, both for traffic issues and to avoid any one shared space from being too isolated.

Introduce contrasts: Especially for sight-impaired persons, colors and textures can be simple and reliable indicators of a change in direction, floor level or other features.

Choose user-friendly hardware: Manual dexterity and grip strength vary widely in individuals and will change for one person over time, so plan for those differences. Lever door handles (versus round knobs) are a good example of friendlier design.

Multilevel storage: Allowing access to storage at many levels ensures that items can be placed and retrieved by the person who uses them most, whether standing or sitting.

Expand bathrooms: Bathing and grooming rituals and toilet use are daily practices that may require assistance for some, so spaces should allow for both mobility aids and human helpers.

Window placement: Taller windows, with their sills placed low, help ensure that everyone can take in the views.

There are dozens of other smart amenities and details built into the book’s featured homes, and Pierce devotes entire chapters to different room types – approaches and entries, living and dining areas, kitchens, baths, bedrooms and utility spaces.

The book does a nice job of balancing the human and technical issues of a complex subject and of highlighting good design aesthetics in the process. It seems most discussions of universal design topics are short articles focused on wheelchair users. The broader approach that Pierce takes here is a welcome and eminently useful exception.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service