Universal Design: The Definition

Universal design in the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

The intent of the universal concept is simply life for everyone by making more housing usable by more people at little or no extra cost. Universal design is an approach to design that incorporates products as well as building features and elements which, to the greatest extent possible, can be used by everyone. While accessible or adaptable design requirements are specified by codes or standards for only some buildings and are aimed at benefiting only some people (those with mobility limitations), the universal design concept targets all people of all ages, sizes, and abilities and is applied to all buildings.

What is a universal design feature? Any component of a house that can be used by everyone regardless of their level of ability or disability. Universal features are generally standard building products or features that have been placed differently, selected carefully, or omitted. For example, standard electrical receptacles can be placed higher than usual above the floor, standard but wider doors can be selected, and steps at entrances can be eliminated to make housing more universally usable.

The composition of our population is changing. Many people are surviving permanently disabling accidents and illness and even more are living longer. It would seem logical that the spaces built to accommodate this population must, by necessity, change also.

The building and design industries have responded to this need for change by producing special products and spaces for special groups. But "special" is often synonymous with "expensive". Specialization leads to complicated building standards and products which, in the end, seldom meet the needs of more than a fraction of those they were meant to help and often seem to stigmatize and separate them further from other people.

Universal design succeeds because it goes beyond specialization. The concept promotes designing every product and building so that everyone can use them to the greatest extent possible - every faucet, light fixture, shower stall, public telephone, or entrance. Universal design is a revolutionary but practical leap forward in the evolution of building and design procedures. When designers and manufacturers seize this concept, universal design will become common, convenient, and profitable.

Excerpted from Universal Design: Housing for the Lifespan of all People, by Ron Mace for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1998