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Wide open spaces

Configuring doorways, floor plans, and installing fixtures with total accessibility in mind by NATHANIA SAWYER Special to the Democrat-Gazette | February 28, 2015 at 1:53 a.m.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette design illustration.

Classical French author Francois de La Rochefoucauld held that, "The only thing constant in life is change." Sometimes change happens suddenly and forcefully, like a lightning strike, and sometimes it creeps in gradually over the course of time. By incorporating the principles of universal design, your house can adapt to meet your needs, whatever changes life throws at you.

Photo by GE
Bi-fold cabinet doors and open space under the cooktop provides the option to sit while cooking.
Photo by GE
Pull-out shelves provide easy access to items without bending or reaching.
Photo by Best Bath Systems
Grab bars, an adjustable shower head, a removable bench and easy-to-use water controls make this shower flexible enough to meet many needs without sacrificing good looks.
Photo by Best Bath Systems
Grab bars don’t have to look institutional, thanks to designs that incorporate premium materials and hardware.


In December, Paul Johnson, 73, of Little Rock was at War Memorial Stadium watching his granddaughter perform in a dance squad competition. One misstep later, he was being rushed to the hospital after falling and detaching both of his kneecaps. After surgery, the doctors immobilized his legs for six weeks, and then he began the process of learning how to walk again while living in a rehabilitation facility. Next, he will go home and will continue his therapy on an out-patient basis. He's working with his case manager and occupational therapist to assess his home for adaptations needed to accommodate the walker he will have to use until he completes his recovery, and other needs.

"Our house was built in 1968," Johnson says. "The doors are narrow and there's nothing in the bathroom like grab bars." Johnson and his wife are scrambling to prepare their home to meet his needs.

Lou Tobian, director of education and outreach for AARP Arkansas, understands Johnson's situation. "Our physical ability could change at the flip of a switch at any age," he says. That's why AARP has invested in educating people about the benefits of concepts such as universal design and aging-in-place, both of which embrace the idea that houses

should be functional and fully accessible, regardless of a person's physical abilities. Tobian says that this can be accomplished through good planning when building or remodeling.


Universal design focuses on increasing accessibility in all aspects of the home for people of all ages and physical abilities -- the same wide doorway that accommodates a wheelchair is convenient for a parent trying to navigate a baby's stroller into the house. Grab bars in bathrooms can prevent falls for frail people in their 80s, injured athletes in their 20s, or small children.

Just the daily wear and tear on our bodies can cause mobility problems over time. Vanessa Nehus with Partners for Inclusive Communities says almost half of people over 65 have some type of functional limitation. "A lot of times it's associated with arthritis," Nehus says. "A hip that has been overused affects gait -- maybe they can't lift their foot a certain height. Simple functional limitation can have a big impact on their life."

Try this. Make fists with both of your hands and keep your elbows next to your body. Now, try to open a closed door, turn on the water at a sink, and open a bathroom cabinet or drawer. Did you struggle to do any of these activities of daily living? Would it be easier if the hardware could be operated by using the side of your hand rather than by grasping it? "Any device you can operate with the side of your hand is universal," Tobian says.


The best way to begin is to incorporate universal design principles and features at every opportunity. This includes home improvement projects large and small.

Consider these examples:

• Lower cabinet shelves that pull out and upper cabinet shelves that drop down -- reaching for items at the back of a cabinet or on an upper shelf can be difficult for people with back, knee or hip problems.

• Workspace designed for seated use -- creating a way to accommodate a stool at the stove, sink or countertop aids people who can't stand for long periods as well as people using wheelchairs.

• Seamless transitions between rooms -- use the same flooring material throughout the house or choose materials with smooth, low-profile thresholds to eliminate trip hazards.

• Handles and pulls -- choose lever-style handles for doors, and pulls with enough space to grasp with the hand, instead of knobs.

• Light switches -- install wide, rocker switches in place of the small toggle switches, or use motion sensor lights.

• Faucets -- replace two-knob faucets with single-lever models or choose one of the newer touch-free faucets with an easily accessible sensor.

• Appliances -- choose models that incorporate universal design principles such as front-loading washers and dryers with controls on the front, ovens with doors that swing open instead of dropping down and dishwashers that pull out of the cabinetry like a drawer.

Remodeling offers many opportunities to use universal design principles. With a little planning, a house can contain the infrastructure to accommodate many different needs at different life stages. For example, stacking closets (placing a closet in the same location on different floors) provides a convenient option in case you need to install an elevator or a dumbwaiter later.

• Doorways and hallways -- increasing the width to 32 inches or 36 inches allows room for crutches, walkers or wheelchairs.

• Turning space -- wheelchairs require approximately 5 feet of turning diameter. Be sure to allow plenty of room, especially in kitchens and bathrooms, to accommodate turning and transferring in and out of a wheelchair.

• Staircases -- make the staircase wide enough to accommodate a lift chair in the future.

• Doors -- consider pocket doors or barn-style sliding doors, which take up less space and require less manipulation than swinging doors.

• Entrances -- have at least one no-step entryway into the house.

• Outlets and switches -- place electrical outlets and light switches where they can be accessed from a seated position, usually no more than 48 inches above the floor.

• Single-floor living -- even if you live in a two-story house, you may want to build a bedroom (or a room that can be converted into a bedroom) and a full bathroom on the first floor to reduce the need to go up and down stairs.


Bathrooms present particular challenges to accessibility in many existing houses, so knowledge of universal design is particularly valuable when remodeling this area.

For example, Nehus recommends putting in the extra support needed for grab bars when building or remodeling a bathroom. "Even if you can't conceive of ever needing grab bars, you need to go ahead and get the blocking between the studs at the appropriate place to give yourself the option of adding the grab bar later," she says. A grab bar that is simply screwed into drywall won't be strong enough to support a person's full weight when pulling up.

Scott Smith, a Little Rock architect, says finding space to create full accessibility can be difficult in existing bathrooms. "It's hard to take a 5-foot-by-8-foot bathroom and make it accessible. Sometimes we have to take an adjacent closet or move an interior wall," he says.

Smith is a fan of Euro-style, zero-threshold showers with linear drains (drains placed against the wall at the back of the shower at the bottom of a slightly tilted floor). "You put these linear drains in and the whole floor tilts towards it in one linear plane. It's easy to install and looks great," Smith says.


Many manufacturers are creating products for the bathroom that can adapt to changing needs. Greg Wells with Best Bath systems says their showers have a semi-permanent threshold. "You can install the shower with the threshold so it looks like a typical curbed shower, but the threshold can be removed so you can have a roll-in shower."

Grab bars, once the most institutional-looking aid in the bathroom, now are available in a variety of styles and materials that look more like designer touches.

A coalition of organizations interested in universal design created Universal Design: Intuitive Design for Innovative Living, a mobile demonstration trailer and website dedicated to educating Arkansans about universal design. The trailer, which travels around the state, focuses on universal design in the bathroom and includes handouts with helpful tips.

The website ( has information about incorporating universal design throughout the house.

HomeStyle on 02/28/2015

Print Headline: Wide open spaces


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