Mary Jo Peterson photographed for Builder Magazine. Stephanie Diani/DB Photo Agency for Builder
Photographer: Stephanie Diani Mary Jo Peterson photographed for Builder Magazine. Stephanie Diani/DB Photo Agency for Builder

A guidepost toward the future of new-home construction, universal design is about creating supportive spaces. From putting appliances within reach to eliminating shower thresholds that anyone could trip over, the school of thought is quickly gaining prevalence among builders looking to support the coming age boom—by 2030, the population aged 65 and over is projected to surge by 65 percent—while also encouraging beautiful, flexible spaces for the rest of us.

 “When universal design is done right, you don’t notice it. It just works better,” says Mary Jo Peterson, long-time kitchen and bath designer, owner of Brookfield, Conn.–based Mary Jo Peterson Inc., and nationally recognized universal design consultant. Peterson stepped away from traditional kitchen and bath design in the late ’80s to focus on designing for clients with disabilities, a path that would marry her love of people with creating beautiful spaces.

In a recent conversation with BUILDER, Peterson offered up some valuable insight into the art and science of universal design.

 Q: What is universal design?
 A: Universal design is a matter of creating choice in the way we use our products and spaces. The flexibility of a space should support its users, instead of us having to adapt to how a space is designed. If you and I come into a kitchen together, you might be 4 feet 10 inches tall and I might be 6 feet 4 inches tall, but if we plan that kitchen carefully there will be a workspace for both of us because it has been planned universally.

 Q: Why is universal design important in new-home construction?
 A: I used to say we were at a tipping point but I think we’ve tipped. Universal design is flowing into the mass market now, and there are several reasons for that. The age boom is one. There’s also a greater variety of people living in a home today. There is demand for flexibility and multitasking within spaces so that it works well for all the people who come into it. There also is an integral relationship with sustainability. If I want to build a bathroom or kitchen that is going to last, I need to make it flexible so that it will change throughout a family’s life as needed. Also, wellness plays a role as universal design supports and inspires us to continue an active and healthy lifestyle.

 Q: What are the leading universal design trends that currently are being adopted in new communities?
 A: You can’t list 10 things and say, “If you do these 10 things you’ll have a universally designed space.” So when I tell you these things, they are the trends people are getting more comfortable with. The world is now paying attention to putting things within reach. People recognize they want their oven to be at a height where they don’t have to bend over—I don’t have to be the one selling the concept anymore. What’s happening with lighting also lends itself to universal design. LED lighting is great for wayfinding and task lighting, and we have so much flexibility because it’s so tiny. In appliances we now have smaller doors that are easier to maneuver—such as column refrigerators and French door refrigerators. And in bathrooms you’ll see ADA compliant toilets and no-threshold showers.

Q: At what phase in construction process should builders consider universal design?
A: Universal design is best and most easily incorporated during the planning phase as it’s at this point that it will be the least costly and most natural—basically invisible and more of an enhancement. Outside of the kitchen and bath areas, builders should consider the entries into the home, passages, lighting, access to storage and utilities, and line of sight when planning windows and space adjacencies.

 Q: What is your best advice for builders in terms of what to focus on in the coming year?
 A: Understand that universal design is an enhancement in the home. You really need to look at what fits with each project, and do it beautifully or invisibly. Look at the master bath in particular and recognize that it is the sanctuary of the owners of the home. Separate the vanities. Make sure there is at least an opportunity for a no-threshold shower or bath. Create privacy in the toilet area without creating a separate room. Also, move away from placing the microwave over the range in the kitchen—nobody can reach that.