In the late 1970s, designer Patricia Moore performed an extraordinary, four-year-long experiment. She disguised herself as an elderly woman, not just in clothes and wigs, but also in a prosthetic cocoon simulating an elderly person’s body. The goal? To better understand the challenges that seniors face in the built environment.
The results were eye-opening. She couldn’t reach items, read instructions, open doors, etc. "With each failure, my autonomy and independence were reduced. The more I couldn’t do, the greater my sense of hopelessness," she says. "Recognizing and responding to this inequity through design describes everything in my work and advocacy today."
She went on to found MooreDesign Associates to create solutions for the everyday needs of folks of all ages and abilities, often gathered under the umbrella term "universal design." She is best known for developing products and environments that can be used by a wide range of people, including the Oxo Good Grips ergonomic kitchen tools, as well as designs for GE Appliances, Kohler, and TOTO, among many others. She also helped write the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and recently completed a prototype space for the flagship VA Hospital in Washington, D.C. Earlier this year, she won a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for her decades of work.
While universal design should be part of every public environment, designers are turning to its principals as they think about "aging in place" and how homes can adapt to the changing needs and abilities of their owners as they get older. We asked Moore what designers, architects, and clients can do to bring universal design home. (We also revisited a few excellent examples from our archives.)
What do you feel is a universal design topic that isn’t getting enough attention?
We have been discussing and developing smart homes for decades, but unfortunately, most houses are functionally stupid—mine included. While I don’t currently have motion detectors that can turn on lighting when I enter a dark room, or appliances that can automatically cook a prepared meal to a proper temperature, or order milk for my morning latte when the container is low, I imagine the day in the near future when I will yearn for those life safety and creature comforts.
What is a common accessibility issue that designers can easily rectify?
Balance loss and falls. It’s the leading cause of death for those 65 and older. The National Council on Aging reports that every 19 minutes, an older adult dies from injuries he or she sustains from a fall.
What's the solution?
Designers have to avoid trip points. We should look at flooring solutions that eliminate area rugs, as well as forgiving floor surfaces—soft materials that will cushion our hips if we fall. I am a big fan of dense carpet squares, which allow for wheeled mobility devices and easy removal and replacement in the case of a major spill. I also like baseboards that emit soft light as you walk from bed to bathroom in the dark of night. They offer safety and don’t disrupt sleep cycles as severely as ceiling fixtures.
We see a lot of designers focus on door handles, given that hand gripping and turning can present difficulty for some. What do you recommend?
For interior doors, lever handles are the inclusive standard, and the development of residential, self-opening doors shows great promise for the future. Whether my arms are full of grocery bags or my hands are stiff with painful arthritis, there is nothing nicer than an "open sesame" solution.
Although I’m anxious about the utilization of technology that can be hacked, I support the use of keyless home entry. I have a niece who works for Google and the first time I visited her in San Francisco, she magically opened her building door for me. That was a wonder! I also like the biometric tech solutions that require fingerprint or eye identification before a doorway will open.
A kitchen design can look flawless, yet be difficult or even dangerous to work in. What advice do you have for designing universal kitchens?
Incorporate a variety of worktops and levels to address everyone from a preschool-age helper to a grandparent preparing a family meal. The best hardware for cabinets and drawers is no hardware! Spring latch solutions are a convenience for everyone and an extension of independence for people with compromised fingers or hands. Cooking appliances without open flame or heat, such as induction cooktops, offer safety in our homes.
Injuries frequently happen in the bathroom. What should designers think about for these spaces?
It’s remarkable that the items that demand the most flexibility for the breadth of potential users are called "fixtures." That tradition should be replaced with moveable alternatives and features. Think step stools for a toddler learning to brush his or her teeth independently. A pull-out seat for sinks is a lovely feature for someone unable to stand. A walk-in shower outfitted with a seating option presents an easy place for bathing the furry members of our families as well as giving a pregnant woman in her third trimester a safe bathing experience. Other things to think about are temperature sensors to prevent scalding and toilets that address various user heights.
Are there additional controls or features residential designers and homeowners should consider?
Voice-activated technologies that open curtains and drapery, set the thermostat, switch on/off lighting, dial a handless phone; ceiling lighting that lowers for easy bulb replacement; and heated flooring are all directions we should be taking for inclusive smart houses. A beautifully landscaped entry into a home that replaces traditional steps.
Any other tips on best practices?
In my firm, we don’t undertake any project without a multidisciplinary team including a physical therapist, occupational therapists, and physiatrist. If our challenge involves cognition, we utilize neurologists, psychologists, and speech therapists. I insist on having as many perspectives as possible.
Brooklyn-based design journalist Sheila Kim reports on architecture, interiors, and decor, as well as design-centric products that run the gamut from table lamps and home accessories to commercial flooring and acoustic ceilings. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Architectural Record, and numerous other publications.