By Harvey S. Jacobs May 30, 2014

Although universal design has been around since the 1960s, it is now gaining some much-needed attention as our society recognizes that all people should be able to live and function independently in their homes throughout their life regardless of their physical or mental ability.

Home builders, renovators, architects, designers and manufacturers increasingly are incorporating universal design principles into their plans and products.

What is universal design? The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University has formulated several principles:

  • Equitable use, meaning the design is useful and marketable to people of diverse abilities.
  • Flexibility in use, meaning the design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences.
  • Simple and intuitive use, meaning the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level.

Universal design is more relevant than ever for several reasons: As our population ages and homeownership becomes more expensive, multigenerational households are becoming more prevalent. These households present their own set of design problems that universal design seeks to address.

For example, in households containing elderly parents and small children, there is a design conundrum over how to accommodate someone who may have arthritis or flexibility issues when childproofing is necessary. A stove may contain knobs on the front that a parent would find easily accessible, but those knobs may pose unacceptable risks for toddlers. It is the designer who is tasked with reconciling the residents’ needs.

Medical advances allow a person with an injury or illness to live longer and with fewer impediments. For example, wounded veterans returning from service expect to fully integrate into society as productive members, with modest, if any, special accommodation. Universal design of homes and products seeks to provide that accommodation.

While the universal design principles have not been completely incorporated into any building codes, several of its objectives have been adopted. Montgomery County has created a program called Design for Life that provides property tax credits to builders and homeowners who include visit-ability and live-ability improvements in new or existing single-family attached and detached homes.

Visit-ability improvements, eligible for tax credits up to $3,000, mean that the home has at least one zero clearance access, meaning that doorway saddles are no higher than 1.5 inches above the surrounding floor, and a special powder room door opening that meets code requirements.

Live-ability improvements, eligible for tax credits up to $10,000, means the home also contains a bedroom and kitchen on the first floor. This program becomes effective July 1. At the state level, Maryland homeowners who improve their home for health or medical conditions may apply to have those improvements exempt from assessment for taxation purposes.

Industry has picked up on this need. The National Association of the Remodeling Industry ( ) certifies its members in universal design. Owners who want to remodel their homes using universal design elements should seek out a universal design certified professional.

David Merrick, president of Merrick Design and Build in Kensington, said that before embarking on a universal design project for a client requiring physical accommodation, I insist on speaking with that client’s physical therapist. Since these universal design principles are subject to interpretation, the best way to build for that client is to ask their medical professional exactly how the design should be implemented.

For example, although grab bars in bathrooms are one type of universal design, there is no consensus on whether they should be installed vertically, horizontally or somewhere in between, Merrick added. The client’s physical therapist can provide essential input on these types of decisions.

Universal design, as the name implies, is not directed specifically at persons with mental or physical disabilities, the elderly or those with special needs.

Its mission is inclusive design. In many cases, universal design is simply common sense.

Harvey S. Jacobs is a real estate lawyer with Jacobs & Associates Attorneys at Law in Rockville. He is an active real estate investor, developer, landlord, settlement attorney, lender and Realtor. This column is not legal advice and should not be acted upon without obtaining your own legal counsel. Contact Jacobs at (301) 417-4144, or