Often times beautiful design goes wrong when people forget about function.

The functional use of spaces is the bottom line.  No matter how beautiful a space is, if people can’t use it functionally, it is useless. I learned about this first hand when I moved into a beautifully remodeled house that had never been lived in. I found many problems with functional use that were over-looked. For example, in the newly renovated bathroom there was no toilet paper holder installed; linen closets with no handles or knobs; and a shower without a door or curtain rod.  While these things were easy to fix, they showed how the building professionals had forgotten to think about the functional use of the spaces they were creating.

This concept becomes even more important when considering people with health concerns or disabilities who might have functional limitations. A skilled building professional will not only consider the use of the space by an average person, but also by people with a variety of functional impairments. It is not enough that the design problems could be worked around, but that in good design no one should have to work around it. This is the motivation behind movements such as universal design, barrier-free homes, visitable homes, and life-time homes, but also a fundamental principle in creating custom home modifications for people with disabilities. This series simply asks the question of “what could be improved?”  It is not meant to criticize, but to encourage people to think about the functional use of the spaces by real people living in a home.

Today’s photo is from a family member’s home: a traditional front door.  We are going to focus on the doorknob style today.  This door has a standard gold, round knob with a small locking mechanism in the middle that operates by turning.

So, what could be improved?

Is it easy to use with your fingers, hands, and arms?  

Can it easily be seen?

Try to think of specific function limitations that are common for older adults (and for people of all ages), what other design options might work better?

#1  Ditch the round knobs.  Opt for lever style door handles instead.

Round doorknobs are difficult for many people to use.  To open a door with a round doorknob, there is one specific motor pattern to grip around the knob with sufficient strength.  If this motion is difficult, painful, or impossible for a person to do, then they are out of luck.

By contrast, a lever style door knob offers many variations on how it can be used, which can be helpful for anyone with arthritis in the arms or hands, with limited use of an arm, or for people with full arms carrying items or kids!  A person can open a lever style handle with a hand, an elbow, or even a foot if needed (probably not the safest approach, but I have certainly done this when my hands were full of groceries!).  All that is needed is a mild downward force- no gripping required.


Example of a lever style door opener

Example of a lever style door opener

#2  Use contrast to find the door knob.

Gold on white doesn’t provide much contrast in the colors to allow someone with low vision to find the door handle.  This is most important outside the home where visitors will be search for a knob (often in low lighting).

Luckily, inside the home, most people can find their own door handles by memory.  However, if you have someone who struggles, such as a guest in your home, you can add contrast in several ways.  First, you can select a door color and knob color that are contrasting.  If this isn’t possible, you can recreate this effect by painting around the handle on the door in a visible color or adding contrasting tape to the handle itself.  The colors can be customized to the need of the person in the home.


Example of silver on blue, moderate contrast

Example of black on white, high contrast color choices

#3 Find a more usable locking mechanism.

These tiny locks placed inside the round knobs require high dexterity of the fingers, good sight, and good sensation of the fingers to use successfully.  Many people struggle with one or more of these skills.

Indoor knobs can have an easier to use push button lock, but not exterior doors.  The easiest solution may be to not use this lock at all and instead rely on a deadbolt lock that has a larger handle to operate.  When necessary, it is possible to enlarge the small lock handle with a product such as Sugru (or other creative ways to attach a built-up handle).


Example of a push button lock

Example of better design: This exterior door handle solves several problems.

  • The round knob is replaced with an easier to use lever, which can be easily used in a variety of ways, such as with a fisted hand or even an elbow.
  • The locking problem was solved by eliminating the lock on the door handle.  It was replaced with a higher quality deadbolt that is activated by turning a larger knob.
  • Silver on dark wood also has higher contrast to be easier to see for people with visual impairments (although the locking handle is hard to see within the silver box).

Other improvement ideas for door handles:

  • While most doors come with pre-drilled holes for door handles and locks, it is possible to get doors made and installed with the handle and locks placed nearly anywhere.  For example, I’ve seen doors with lever handles down low to allow foot use for people with upper exerity disabilities and door handles placed midway down for people with short stature.
  • Locks can be replaced with smart home electronic locks that are operated by a computer device or through touch or voice command.  Some higher security locks with open automatically to voice commands or a visual scan of a person.
  • Did you know that you can get an automatic opening door for your home that has a locking mechanism for home security?  This is a valuable option for people with limited mobility in both their arms and people who use wheelchairs or scooters.
  • One idea to avoid is door handles that work with a thumb latch.  An option seen on many newer homes is a large door handle that is operated with a thumb lever.  While attractive and modern, these are difficult to use for many people because they require significant thumb strength and put pressure on the thumb and wrist joints.  They also require an adult hand size to operate, with many children not having large enough grips to even reach the thumb lever.  They can only be used on a very specific way to open the door, not allowing for flexible use by people of all ages and abilities.

So what have I missed?  What other ideas or suggestions do you have?  Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.