Universal design may well be the next major movement to sweep the homebuilding industry after green building – at least if expert predictions during a full day of programming at the International Builders’ Show in Orlando prove accurate. Although it’s hard not to mention the term “universal design” without referencing baby boomers (the graying of this generation of 78 million is certainly creating a sense of urgency on matters of home safety and accessibility), UD proponents are quick to note that it isn’t just for older homeowners.

After all, it’s universal.

“The new universal design is pretty, easy to use, and has high-tech functionality that is nearly invisible,” Brookfield, Conn.-based kitchen designer Mary Jo Peterson pointed out during a press conference on the topic. “Right now this is a concept that is age driven, but truly the target should be everybody.”

While the tenets of universal design are ever evolving, the term is generally understood to encapsulate “enabling rather than disabling” home design features, such as wider doors and hallways, non-skid flooring, no-threshold entries and showers, raised electrical outlets, ergonomic faucets and cabinet hardware, multi-height countertops and workstations, pull-out cabinet shelves, and the list goes on. The basic philosophy is that a home should be navigable and accommodating to people of all different shapes, sizes, ages, and abilities.

Matt Thornhill, founder of The Boomer Project, a market research initiative based in Richmond, Va., focusing on the 50+ market, noted that there are many universal design lessons to be gleaned from recent consumer product makeovers. When Heinz redesigned its ketchup bottle as a plastic squeeze bottle a couple years back, consumers were liberated from the ritual of turning the traditional glass vessel upside down and banging the bottom – or, alternately, sticking a knife into the neck, only to cause half of its contents to come pouring out. Although a nostalgic few glass bottle lovers protested the change, legions more lauded the packaging modification as an ergonomic masterstroke – one that is just as user-friendly to messy kids as it is to older individuals with arthritic hands.

The challenge for today’s builders, architects, designers, and product manufacturers, Thornhill said, is to find ways to make homes just as functional, intuitive, and user-friendly as that ketchup bottle.

Universal design advocates, meanwhile, are facing a different sort of uphill battle: debunking the misconception that anything universally designed must inevitably look institutional or hospital-like.  Major manufacturers such as Masco Corp., Kohler, and others have already begun breaking down such misconceptions by example. Today’s universal design is the sleek, lever-handle faucet that’s easier to maneuver than a knob. It’s the in-drawer dishwasher or raised platform washing machine that can be loaded from either a standing or seated position. Or the art-glass task lighting that makes a style statement while simultaneously making it easier to read a recipe, thread a needle, or peel a head of garlic.  The part you notice is the aesthetic. The part you appreciate is the functionality.

Experts provided countless other examples of universal design’s universal benefits in a string of educational seminars and product tours at the show. Presenters were quick to point out, for example, that a threshold-free front entry may be wheelchair accessible, but it also allows parents to roll a stroller inside without waking a sleeping baby. Pull-out base cabinets in the kitchen are a godsend not just for older people, but also for anyone who is not tall – including the 28-year-old woman who is 5-feet tall, lives alone, and can’t reach conventional upper cabinets without a ladder.  And then there are reinforced grab bars in the bathroom (now available in high-style designs that look like fancy towel racks), which, unlike standard towel racks, will not rip out of the wall if small kids attempt to hang from them. 

The great news is that universal design doesn’t have to cost a whole lot more than conventional design from a construction standpoint. “You can easily do a 2-foot-8-inch-wide doorway instead of a 2-foot-six-inch with virtually no price difference,” Binghamton, N.Y.-based builder and remodeler Mike McGowan said in a press conference. And besides, a wider door feels luxurious in the same way that a taller ceiling height does. If anything, it’s more of a design plus than a minus.

One litmus test that McGowan uses to ensure the user-friendliness of his homes is whether a person can navigate and use every feature in the house while wearing mittens.  That simple exercise informs specification choices in appliances, door hardware, lighting, and more.  “It just requires some retraining and rethinking with our trades,” says McGowan, the immediate past chair of the NAHB’s 50+ Housing Council. “I’ve found it’s easier to train my guys one way, so everything we do is universal design.”

Would your latest new home pass the mitten test?  It may not be a pressing issue now, but it could be in 20 years, when one in five U.S. residents will be 65 or older.  Even builders who don’t design specifically for seniors will be designing and building homes for families who want their parents and grandparents to come visit and help out with Thanksgiving dinner.

“If we do it right,” Peterson said, “it will just be beautiful and work well and won’t be identifiable.” But promoting a design cause whose ultimate goal is invisibility, transparency, and universality could be a challenge in and of itself. 

Jenny Sullivan is a senior editor covering architecture and design for BUILDER.