How Does the Concept of Universal Design Compare to Custom Home Modifications for Home Owners?

Universal Design:

Universal design a general theory that applies not only to homes, but the design of all things (such as libraries, coffee pots, and computer games). This term was first used by architect Ronald Mace to describe the goal of designing environments and products to be used to the greatest extent possible by everyone, including people of all abilities and disabilities.

7 Principles of Universal Design:

1. Equitable Use
    Ex. Can a person of any height reach a sink?
2. Flexible Use
    Ex. Can lighting levels be adjusted to different user’s needs?
3. Simple and Intuitive Use
    Ex. Are light switches easy to find and use?
4. Perceptible Information
    Ex. Can steps be easily seen?
5. Tolerance for Error
    Ex. Are there handrails to prevent falls in slippery locations?
6. Low Physical Effort
    Ex. Can doors be easily opened and closed?
7. Size and Space for Approach and Use
    Ex. Is there room for equipment or caregivers in bathrooms?

Reference and resource: The Center for Universal 

Custom Home Modifications:

Home modifications are small or large changes to a home that improve the environment to meet the needs of the person or family who lives there. The changes are customized to the individual or family needs. They improve living at home by making daily activities and routines easier and safer.

Examples would be install lever door knobs for someone with arthritis in the hands; putting a bench in a shower for someone who has limited standing ability, or increasing lighting over kitchen counters for someone with low vision.

The guiding principle behind home modifications is customization to a specific person’s abilities. A person’s specific needs related to a disability or health concern is what determines that appropiate building solution, rather than a one-size fits all approach. The general principles of Universal Design may help generate ideas, but generally do not solve individual’s needs for customized home modifications.

However, understanding the concept of universal design can greatly improve a building professional’s ability to skillfully approach custom home modifications through highlighing how use of spaces by people holds the key to great desgin.

There are several popular movements within the larger idea of Universal Design, each with its own primary goal (and own marketability).


This term is a type of Universal Design focused on removing barriers in the physical environment.  It is often used to describe the Americans with Disability Act that aims to make public spaces accessible for people with disabilities.

Resources: VA Barrier Free Design Standard


This term means designing homes that can be visited by people who have mobility impairments (such as people who use a walker or wheelchair). The main idea is that homes should be welcoming to visitors of all abilities by including a zero-step entrance, 32″ wide doors, and a main floor bathroom large enough for a wheelchair.

Reference and resource: Visitability 

Read about Beyond Accessibility’s take on Visitability!

Lifetime Homes:

This term refers to a list of design principles that aim to make homes more adaptable for people to use for a lifetime. There are 16 design considerations for homes, such as parking space, home entrances, and bathroom layout. It focuses primarily on allowing spaces to be adapted for the mobility limitations of future users.

Reference and resource: Lifetime Homes


Looking for more information, visit FAQ page for more info on home modifications.


Looking for resources on home modifications?– This website is from the National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification by Andrus Gerontology Center at University of Southern California.

Home Modification Fact Sheet (pdf)- Information fact sheet from the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Home Modification Ideas for Older Adults (video)- By Stephanie Dahl