Good design for everybody


When Warren and Elizabeth Karn designed their new home in Bluffton in 2016, they knew they wanted it to be the last home they ever lived in. For almost a decade, while they worked hard at their fast-paced jobs in Chicago, they dreamed of retiring to the Lowcountry and building their dream home on the lot they had purchased in a private community. When that day finally came, they needed a house that would suit them into their golden years.

“I want to live here and enjoy it every day until they haul me out feet first,” said Warren, 68.

Although both husband and wife are in good health, they wanted a home that would be easy to navigate and comfortable for years to come. Also, Elizabeth’s sister visits frequently and uses a wheelchair, and the couple wanted all aspects of the home to be accessible for her. Enter the principles of universal design.

What is Universal Design?
Universal design, also called barrier-free design, focuses on making the home safe and accessible for everyone, regardless of age, physical ability or stature. Modern universal design remains largely invisible to the casual observer.

In addition to raising resale value in a real estate market that reflects the needs an aging population, applying universal design concepts such as wider doors and hallways makes a house feel more spacious — the Karns’ home incorporates many of these concepts. Here are some other steps homeowners, architects and builders can take to make homes more user-friendly.


  • Use pulls instead of knobs on cabinets and drawers. These are easier on arthritic hands.
  • Install a contrasting edge-band on countertops. This makes it easier for someone with failing eyesight to see the edge of the countertop.
  • Elevate the dishwasher to accommodate people in wheelchairs as well as those who may not be able to bend easily.
  • To accommodate a cook who uses a wheelchair, leave open space under the sink, cooktop, and prep counter, opt for higher toekicks on the base cabinets, install pull-down shelves in the upper cabinets, and choose a stove with controls at the front or to the side of the cooktop (choose a model with a safety lock-out option if there are also young children in the house).


Universal Design2

  • Install countertops with contrasting edge-banding.
  • Choose an adjustable-height showerhead so the shower head can easily be positioned at a comfortable height for anyone. Use only anti-scald or pressure balancing valves.
  • Offset shower and tub controls to the room side of the enclosure so they can easily be reached from outside the tub or shower.
  • Install grab bars — or install blocking between the studs so that grab bars can easily be added in the future.
  • To provide wheelchair access, install a curb-free shower pan, choose a wall-hung sink with covered pipes, and try to provide a 60-inch clear floor space for turning the wheelchair.


  • Choose lever-style handles instead of doorknobs.
  • Ensure hallways and doorways are at least 32 inches wide.
  • Avoid changes in floor height, including thresholds.
  • Lower switches and raise outlets so that they can be reached from a seated position.