Universal Design Means More Livable Communities for Everyone

By Deb Bokamper, Owner of Ageless Design, and Vito Lucido, Independent Living Services Coordinator at Delta Center for Independent Living and Chair of the St. Charles County Housing Team


While the United States is home to many fine housing developments, there is a blind spot with the implementation of universal design principles and practices to help people age in place. Universal design can ensure social value for homeowners and home buyers while increasing market share for housing developers. Maybe without realizing it and certainly by not prioritizing it, housing developers have bypassed tremendous opportunities to embrace innovation by notoffering more attractive universal design housing options.

The seven general guiding principles of universal design include but are not limited to the following (from the Missouri Inclusive Housing Development Corporation):

  1. Equitable use, such as zero degree entries.

  2. Flexibility in development, such as open-floor plans for single-floor living.

  3. Simple and intuitive functional uses of switches and outlets that are reachable at any height.

  4. Perceptible information, including wider hallways and doorways to accommodate those in wheelchairs or other mobility devices.

  5. Low physical effort regarding doors, lever-style door handles, faucet handles, and “backing” for grab bars where needed.

  6. Simple and intuitive functional uses of space in bathrooms, kitchens, and other areas.

  7. Tolerance for error with regard to flooring, ventilation, base cabinets, or cook tops, to provide access even when a feature is not needed today but might be needed in the future.

Deb Bokamper is the principal at Ageless Design, which offers residential universal design projects. She is a member of the American Society of Interior Design and a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS). Deb’s designs feature the types of flooring, cabinetry, special size doorways and hallways, lighting, furniture, and paint colors that are the hallmarks of universal design.

One of her clients is Joseph Fischer, Jr., a man who is getting older and needed his home’s interior space to be more functional for him. He needed a home where he could age in place and enjoy a comfortable and successful retirement. So he started looking for someone to help him build a universal design home.

The universal design features most important to Joe included a walk-in shower, zero degree entry, lighting directly over the shower space, and having all living features on one floor so he would never need to go to a lower level.

Joe’s bathrooms required a certain degree of turning radius and correct toilet height, and his flooring had to be easy to clean but also safe to walk on. Universal design flooring should be slip-resistant, yet smooth and safe without trip hazards. Carpet, if used at all, should be low pile—otherwise it can act like quicksand when accessed by someone using a wheelchair.

Space was another important consideration for Joe. Universal design doorways need to be wider than the standard 30 inches to get walkers, wheelchairs and power chairs in and out. Developers should start with 36 inches and consider doing away with interior doors (which will save money) or incorporating pocket doors instead.

Joe needed adequate lighting, too—more than the electrician suggested—with switches, outlets, and other electrical features placed at accessible levels. These features were not expensive, and when compared to the cost of falls and broken bones, Joe said, “they are priceless!”

Joe was concerned with general safety in his home. He installed exterior lighting and an alarm system to reduce the potential for vandalism, and also added low-upkeep flowers and shrubs. In closets, he wanted lower racks so he could reach them from a wheelchair. Joe discovered that using all-LED lighting saved on energy costs and bulb replacement, and he had Ageless Design convert part of a linen closet into a combined medicine and linen space with paint contrasted between light and dark colors so objects stick out.

Joe’s story is a testament to the power and potential of universal design. It adds market value, makes homes more functional for homeowners, and creates a better way to age in place. By tweaking floor plans to include universal design features, developers can increase the number of attractive options available at the point of new construction. They can also increase the resale value of homes as younger home buyers seek accessible first-floor living for parents, visitors, and themselves. With one-third of Americans set to age into retirement by 2030 (Alan Cheshier, “Universal Design a Boon to Resale Value”), it is now more essential than ever that everyone be able to visit family, friends, and loved ones of all abilities where they are.

Most importantly, universal design helps to build communities that are more welcoming for everyone. Says Joe, “A universal design home will take me to the end of my life and provide me with a safe and functional space for me as I age—and for my children and grandchildren when they come over to visit.”


Deb Bokamper is owner of Ageless Design and is a professional member of the American Society of Interior Design and a Certified Aging in Place Specialist. She has been in the interior design business since 1989 and has a background in financial services.


Vito Lucido is the Independent Living Services Coordinator at Delta Center for Independent Living and serves as chair of the St. Charles County Housing Team, a voluntary council dedicated to quality universal design housing. He is a quadriplegic with 34 years of experience living with a disability.

Click here to learn more about the St. Charles County Housing Team and the work they do to identify barriers to and promote solutions to meet multiple housing needs.


Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.