How universal design creates accessibility for people regardless of their age and physical abilities

Insights on Universal design from an expert’s point of view

Universal design in general refers to environments, products and buildings, which are inherently accessible to all people regardless of their age and physical abilities.

This article concerns good universal design with an emphasis on products. Therefore, we have asked Thomas Bade, CEO, Institut für Universal Design, for some insights on the universal design area.

What is good Universal Design?

Good Universal Design must strive to be invisible or become invisible. It is key to think about tomorrow today”.

When asked about Universal Design, Thomas Bade quotes British Industrial Designer James Irvine: “Universal Design? Good design is Universal Design”.

Is it possible to design all rooms in accordance with universal design?

In existing living spaces, it is usually more difficult and economically complicated to comply with the design criteria of Universal Design. Here, a precise spatial analysis is required in order to achieve the best possible result. Yet. With structural measures, the Universal Design structure can be significantly improved so that the resident can move more safely and comfortably in the living spaces.

In the case of new buildings, especially in residential construction, one of the first steps in the planning must be to deal with possible user scenarios in the near and far future. As a rule, residential buildings exist for more than 50 years. Therefore, it is necessary to think through as many options as possible (single, couples, families, older people, people with disabilities), also with respect for the profitability of the investment.

When we talk about the demographic adaptation of living space in Germany, we mean a demand volume of at least 2.5 million residential units. This number makes it clear: Universal Design means economic growth!”

How can a bathroom comply with the rules of Universal Design? And which products are necessary in this relation?

“First, it needs a corresponding room setting, such as:

  • Accessibility (width of the door at least 90 cm, sliding door, space-saving door)

    Moreover it needs:

  • Bright room atmosphere (so that details such as accessories, control elements such as fittings and the individualisation of the bathroom, etc. can be better visibly accentuated)
  • Good lighting in the places of action (washing, showering, make-up, etc.)
  • Easy-care, non-slip and easy-care floor or / and wall coatings
  • Accessible and easy mounting situations
  • Flexible options for variable washstand assemblies (height adjustment, drive-in)
  • Washbasins with "invisible" recessed grips as possible stand-up aids
  • WC sink with variable height settings
  • Shower / bathtub as a choice of option (plug and play), changeable
  • Defined (possible transfer points) for support and handholds, seats in the shower and toilet area (considering possible action areas for assistants)
  • Open interfaces for Smart Home applications (for example Legionella Prevention, Call or Emergency Systems) or Comfort Options (Entertainment etc.)”

Which qualities are important for products within universal design?

“In addition to a presumed aesthetic requirement, Universal Design always has to entail ecological and economic sustainability. The products should be characterized by an appropriate materiality and longevity. This will be expensive at first, but more cost effective on the long-term.

In this context, it is certainly possible to talk about a system configuration that reliably complements the entire product cycle, but at the end also reduces it.”

How has universal design developed throughout the recent years?

“Slowly in Germany and Europe. Here, we have too long talked about definitions, norms and demands of specific user groups.

However, an aging society cannot really be a surprise. In this respect, it is puzzling that this development has not translated into more universal design products much earlier.

What has led to significantly better universal design quality in recent years is, in our opinion, better management of user interests in their respective living contexts. Methods like universal design thinking, participatory design or the methodology of personal education have resulted in a substantial development. Universal Design is on the way from an exclusive product view to a universal design process.”