A Primer on Universal and Multigenerational Design

written by:
February 20, 2014
One of architecture’s greatest functions is to increase the mobility and comfort of the people who use it. Here, learn how universal and multigenerational design can help those with special needs thrive.
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  The term “universal design” is attributed to the architect Ronald Mace, and although its scope has always been broader, its focus has tended to be on the built environment. Those using the term often define it as design “for the whole population,” with the notion being that a design should work for disabled and non-disabled people alike.  
    The term “universal design” is attributed to the architect Ronald Mace, and although its scope has always been broader, its focus has tended to be on the built environment. Those using the term often define it as design “for the whole population,” with the notion being that a design should work for disabled and non-disabled people alike. 
     
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  We’ve all seen Braille labels ineptly screwed to walls as an afterthought, with no sensitivity to the overall environment. The irony is that this in itself undermines universal design. Anything so clunky that it is off-putting to anyone who has an alternative by default becomes a special-needs product—and a stigmatizing one at that. If the aspiration is truly universal design, Braille would become part of everyone’s experience, not just that of the people who read it. What if the decorative texture of Braille were designed with sighted people in mind as well, even if it remained illegible and abstract to them? Click to see our entire 101 series on Universal Design. 

    We’ve all seen Braille labels ineptly screwed to walls as an afterthought, with no sensitivity to the overall environment. The irony is that this in itself undermines universal design. Anything so clunky that it is off-putting to anyone who has an alternative by default becomes a special-needs product—and a stigmatizing one at that. If the aspiration is truly universal design, Braille would become part of everyone’s experience, not just that of the people who read it. What if the decorative texture of Braille were designed with sighted people in mind as well, even if it remained illegible and abstract to them? Click to see our entire 101 series on Universal Design

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  A retired couple wanted a home that would easily adapt to meet their changing needs while helping future generations meet theirs. After purchasing a tear-down house next to their adult daughter's home and family in 2010, the Goodchilds connected with a pair of architects who shared their sensibility. The resulting Burke-Gilman Bike Trail house, named for the Seattle recreational footpath, which it overlooks, is the playful embodiment of sustainability. From the adaptable office space upstairs to the back entry that has been designed for conversion into a wheelchair path, the house is as changeable as it is comfortable. See more of the house’s aging-in-place elements here. Photo by Dale Christopher Lang PhD AIAP

    A retired couple wanted a home that would easily adapt to meet their changing needs while helping future generations meet theirs. After purchasing a tear-down house next to their adult daughter's home and family in 2010, the Goodchilds connected with a pair of architects who shared their sensibility. The resulting Burke-Gilman Bike Trail house, named for the Seattle recreational footpath, which it overlooks, is the playful embodiment of sustainability. From the adaptable office space upstairs to the back entry that has been designed for conversion into a wheelchair path, the house is as changeable as it is comfortable. See more of the house’s aging-in-place elements here. Photo by Dale Christopher Lang PhD AIAP

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  Brothers Soheil and Nima Nakhshab are principals of an eponymous San Diego–based design-build firm that they founded in 2003. When they built their house, where three generations of their family resides, they had to accommodate the various needs of the household. “Making a house accessible costs the same; you just need to think of it before you pour the concrete,” Nima says. Learn how they accommodated all three generations in our slideshow. Photo by Ye Rin Mok.  Photo by: Ye Rin Mok

    Brothers Soheil and Nima Nakhshab are principals of an eponymous San Diego–based design-build firm that they founded in 2003. When they built their house, where three generations of their family resides, they had to accommodate the various needs of the household. “Making a house accessible costs the same; you just need to think of it before you pour the concrete,” Nima says. Learn how they accommodated all three generations in our slideshow. Photo by Ye Rin Mok.

    Photo by: Ye Rin Mok

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  Modal Design principal Daniel Monti was tasked to create a low-maintenance, multi-generational home for his parents, his family, his brother’s children and their many pets. When choosing material and furniture, Monti’s guiding principle always centered on his family. On the first floor, Monti designed an open plan that flows from living to kitchen to outdoors in one linear motion. Concrete (i.e. easy to clean up) floors, dark-colored furniture and large open spaces negate any need for delicate care, instantly putting everyone at ease. Photo by Benny Chan.  Photo by: Benny Chan

    Modal Design principal Daniel Monti was tasked to create a low-maintenance, multi-generational home for his parents, his family, his brother’s children and their many pets. When choosing material and furniture, Monti’s guiding principle always centered on his family. On the first floor, Monti designed an open plan that flows from living to kitchen to outdoors in one linear motion. Concrete (i.e. easy to clean up) floors, dark-colored furniture and large open spaces negate any need for delicate care, instantly putting everyone at ease. Photo by Benny Chan.

    Photo by: Benny Chan

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  A cozy lake cabin in Northern Idaho was renovated to accomodate a couple and their sons' growing families. By adding a 830-square-foot loft addition, they were able to accomodate the additional family members while keeping an open first floor layout that was still accessible to everyone. 

    A cozy lake cabin in Northern Idaho was renovated to accomodate a couple and their sons' growing families. By adding a 830-square-foot loft addition, they were able to accomodate the additional family members while keeping an open first floor layout that was still accessible to everyone. 

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  Karen Braitmeyer of Studio Pacifica, an architecture firm specializing in universal access, renovated her home not only to accomodate her needs (she is a wheelchair user) but her daughter's (also a wheelchair user but with a different disability). She and architect Carol Sundstrom had to make necessary deicisions on the house, such as eliminating the orignal fireplace to create a family room and better utilize the home's 2,000 square feet. The kitchen was completely reworked to cater to any user and now has four different counter heights, a side-opening oven, smart cabinets, and extra room in front of the sink.“It’s interesting—most people put every wheelchair user in the same category, and figure you should just build to ADA specifications,” says Sundstrom. “But when Karen and I work with wheelchair users, we don’t just open the guidelines for universal design and follow the instructions—we measure arm length and reach, and we consider with our clients how long we should anticipate muscle strength, and what must continue to adapt architecturally. In this case, Karen and her daughter have different requirements, and we also needed to think of David’s needs.” Photo by Kathryn Barnard.  Photo by: Kathryn Barnard

    Karen Braitmeyer of Studio Pacifica, an architecture firm specializing in universal access, renovated her home not only to accomodate her needs (she is a wheelchair user) but her daughter's (also a wheelchair user but with a different disability). She and architect Carol Sundstrom had to make necessary deicisions on the house, such as eliminating the orignal fireplace to create a family room and better utilize the home's 2,000 square feet. The kitchen was completely reworked to cater to any user and now has four different counter heights, a side-opening oven, smart cabinets, and extra room in front of the sink.

    “It’s interesting—most people put every wheelchair user in the same category, and figure you should just build to ADA specifications,” says Sundstrom. “But when Karen and I work with wheelchair users, we don’t just open the guidelines for universal design and follow the instructions—we measure arm length and reach, and we consider with our clients how long we should anticipate muscle strength, and what must continue to adapt architecturally. In this case, Karen and her daughter have different requirements, and we also needed to think of David’s needs.” Photo by Kathryn Barnard.

    Photo by: Kathryn Barnard

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