The Myth of Universal Design - and - How to Be Adaptable Instead

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Universal Design advocates say this mirror should work for everyone, but it clearly doesn't work for me, unless I sit down.

This mirror works perfectly fine for someone sitting down, but not for someone standing up… at least not for someone who is moderately tall.


   “Universal Design” quite frankly is a sham, at least inside a building. There’s nothing universal about it. Universal Design is the term used by architects and advocates for the physically challenged to describe their design ideals. But let’s face facts: how a person interacts with their surroundings while sitting down (whether in a wheelchair or elsewhere) is very different from how they interface with those same places standing up. It’s inescapable.

   It seems like every interest group today is over-reaching. The fire marshals are over-stepping into the planners’ territory, and the urban foresters are making claims that defy logic. So the advocates for the physically challenged certainly aren’t alone in their error… but it’s still an error. And that’s a pity, because they occupy the moral high ground on a number of other counts.

soft coastal light falls through the hanging pots and across the white marble countertops of this delicious kitchen

cabinets either side of range could

easily be furniture instead

Tweet: Forget Universal Design. Do adaptable design instead that can change over time for an occupant’s mobility. http://ctt.ec/_2D3f+

Forget Universal Design. Do adaptable design instead, that can change over time for an occupant’s mobility.

   Let’s consider another alternative: rather than attempting to design a space and cloak it in the false claim that it works equally well for people sitting down and standing up, what if that space were designed to be adaptable instead? So that when a person without physical challenges lived there, it could adapt to their mobility, or when someone with physical challenges were there, it could adapt to theirs as well? Or consider my friend Mike Watkins, who was in a wheelchair several months after a car wreck years ago: would it not have been great had he been able to adapt his home for that temporary change in mobility, only to change it back later?

stainless steel pull-outs in base cabinets store far more than standard fixed shelving, so that base cabinets alone can store as much as an entire conventional kitchen

equip all base cabinets with pull-outs, and the base

cabinets alone can store more than base and wall

cabinets in a conventional kitchen

Tweet: Mobile furniture is much more nimble and adaptable than built-in cabinets. http://ctt.ec/RT1Hf+

Mobile furniture is much more nimble and adaptable than built-in cabinets.

   Here’s one way to do it: do movable furniture instead of built-in cabinets whenever possible. That might seem laughable to anyone stepping through the kitchen door, but look at photos of some of the really charming kitchens designed a century ago: most, if not all of the millwork was furniture, not cabinets. And today’s high-design kitchens are more often than not filled with cabinets that are faux furniture. Just make it real instead of faux and the kitchen becomes highly adaptable.

open casement windows on a kitchen wall brighten the workspace dramatically, and provide a gentle breeze to cool the kitchen on a late spring day

reducing or eliminating the need for wall cabinets pays

several dividends beyond accessibility for those seated,

because all that wall space that would have been

cabinets can be windows instead - with or without

shelves like those shown here

Tweet: An adaptable interior is usually a more charming interior, especially when the pieces used have stories to tell. http://ctt.ec/Y6LE7+

An adaptable interior is usually a more charming interior, especially when the pieces used have stories to tell.

   The new kitchens are often made to look like they’re built of furniture because the best designers now realize that lots of people consider them more lovable than their more sterile counterparts built of blatant built-in cabinets. And you can be even greener and do the real thing… adapt existing old furniture that has a history. Help it endure for another generation or two. Real stories embedded in real scrapes and scars is far better than brush-on patina.

   We talked about new uses for furniture in the Closets vs. Armoires post, which showed how it’s possible for one generation’s master bedroom to become another generation’s home office… just by moving the armoires. Adaptability is one of the foundations of sustainability, as the Original Green site points out.

   In any case, “aging in place” is a big concern today, and rightfully so. Why should someone be forced out of their house because their mobility changes? If you don’t mind, please let me know in the poll (and the comments below) if this is something you’ve been thinking about… thanks!


   ~Steve Mouzon


© Mouzon Design 2014