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

Outdoor Rooms vs. Open Decks

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open deck just off the Couple's Suite of the 2011 Coastal Living Idea House overlooks the alley - but will anyone sit there?

Yes, it’s pretty, but will anyone really sit on this deck on the alley?

classic Hearth Garden nestles around white brick outdoor fireplace at the 2011 Coastal Living Idea House

Hearth Garden

   America has a decades-long flirtation with decks dating all the way back to the 1970s, but open decks have several serious problems. Wanda and I designed the Coastal Living Idea House in 2011, and the landscape designers did a wonderful job of realizing our design intent almost everywhere around the house… except for one place: the private Couple's Garden was traded at the last moment for an open deck overlooking the alley that is unlikely to ever be used. I never heard exactly how that happened, but switching back to “the normal way” is such an easy thing for a developer or builder to do that it’s a cinch to understand how such a thing could take place. But it’s still unfortunate. Here’s why:


view across the Hearth Garden to the Dinner Garden at the 2011 Coastal Living Idea House

view from Hearth Garden to Dinner Garden

   Treated pine salesmen will tell you about their 40-year (or longer) warranties, but go out and try to find a deck that has been there since 1974. They don’t exist. Sure, you might find one that’s in the same place as one built in 1974, but it has likely been rebuilt several times since then. Simply put, treated wood doesn’t last very long laying flat under an open sky. Wood porch floors often last for most of a century, but they’re covered, which protects them from much of the sun and almost all of the rain, ice, and snow. If you want a floor outdoors under the open sky, you really should use flooring made of stone or clay. In other words, pavers or tile of some sort.


garden rooms snuggle into back corner courtyard of the 2011 Coastal Living Idea House, framed by side porch with striped canvas roll-down awnings

outdoor rooms work best when they

snuggle into a corner of the house

   A proper floor is only part of a well-designed outdoor room. If you’re like most people, you’re more comfortable sitting down outdoors in a place with at least some privacy instead of places where you’re on full display to the public… at least when you’re home. If you’re sitting at a sidewalk cafe with other diners, that’s perfectly fine. But for most of us who don’t like the idea of living in glass houses, home is not a place where we really aspire to be on display. That’s why outdoor rooms need solid walls that are at least shoulder height when we’re sitting down. For most outdoor rooms, we feel much more comfortable if they’re at least as tall as we are when we’re standing.

Room Type

   The amount of privacy needed isn’t the same with all outdoor rooms. Kitchen Gardens can be most public, located where neighbors can walk by and ask “how does your garden grow” or whatever. Views into Dinner Gardens or Breakfast Terraces can be OK as well, as we’re acclimated to eating in public. But the Hearth Garden should be more private, and the Couple's Garden should be the most private of all, because it’s the realm shared by only the two of you.


small trees planted along the private garden fence of the 2011 Coastal Living Idea House provide cooling shade and privacy from the neighbors

row of small trees cool the garden and provide privacy

above the top of the garden wall

   Outdoor rooms should be designed to cool you in summertime, but should keep you warm late into an autumn evening. A room open to the breeze can keep you cool on a summer afternoon, but is very difficult to keep warm as the days shorten deep into the fall. But you can also keep cool by other means as well, such as shade from an arbor or tree, or the cooling effect of a fountain beside you. So it’s easier to keep an outdoor room comfortable for months longer if it’s mostly enclosed.

   But maybe that’s just me… what would you prefer? Are you a huge open deck fan, or would you consider a well-designed outdoor room instead? Take this poll, then see what everyone else thought as well… thanks!

   ~Steve Mouzon

© Mouzon Design 2014