When people think of universal design, they usually associate it with older individuals or those with physical limitations and with products such as grab bars, ramps, and fold-down shower seats. But the term goes beyond products and services that benefit special-needs people.

Instead, "universal design is a broader, more comprehensive 'design-for-all' approach to the development of products, architecture, and environments around human diversity," states the Sacramento, Calif.-based Division of the State Architect on its Web site.

New age

The elderly and the disabled benefit from universal design products, but any home built today should incorporate universal design elements to make it safer and more comfortable for all household members.

"Universal design makes sense regardless of a person's age," says Diana Schrage, an interior designer at the Kohler Design Center in Kohler, Wis. "It's smart, comfortable, and it can be attractive." Kohler tries to acquaint consumers and builders with the myriad good-looking products available that also meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

While universal design has to do with the ergonomics, placement, height, and measurement of products, it also involves a re-examination and redesign of existing products, such as faucets, door levers, switches, doors, lighting, and appliances.

Kitchen confidential

According to Washington-based AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), the kitchen is where universal design products can be most useful. AARP suggests installing appliances at accessible heights, lowering countertops, and using side-by-side refrigerators. It also recommends using single-lever faucets with spray attachments, which are easier to operate and safer for filling pots on the stove.

Kohler and North Olmsted, Ohio-based Moen now offer single-lever, pull-down sprayheads that are easier to use. Kohler's Clairette and Vinnata boast ergonomic designs, high-arc spouts, and ceramic disk valves. Moen's Aberdeen features a pause button for better control of water flow.

A wall oven also could be more user-friendly. Placed at an appropriate height, it is inherently easier to use than a unit in a range, but its pull-down door makes access difficult. Augusta, Ga.-based Frigidaire addresses this concern with its Gallery series convection wall oven that has a side-swing door for easy access.

Bath time

The bath offers more opportunities for implementing universal design principles, says AARP. A few product changes can help a homeowner remain independent in old age or make it easier to bathe a child. Examples include a hand shower on an adjustable bar and anti-scald devices on faucets to prevent burns. The new Monitor 1800 Series Jetted Shower XO, from Indianapolis-based Delta, combines these features.

"We try to introduce products that work with any age and ability and fit everyone's needs," says Angie Coffman, director of Delta product marketing for Delta Faucet Co. "Our products always try to cover some aspect of universal design." The 1800 Series, she says, is small enough to fit in the hand, and it employs scald-guard technology to protect against temperature fluctuations.

Though some home buyers may not yet have thought about these issues, a smart builder keeps an eye on the future. "Most of our buyers are in their 50s and are in good health," says Michael Rich, vice president of sales and marketing for Avatar Holdings in Coral Gables, Fla. "But we make our homes accessible and pay attention to universal design." Avatar uses comfort height toilets, lever door handles, and safety grab bars. It gives the builder an edge in the market, Rich adds.

At little extra cost, installing universal design products makes life easier for all the family. Delta's Coffman believes manufacturers will have to pay more attention to such products in order to enjoy a competitive advantage into the future. As the aging population increases in number, builders would be well advised to do the same.

Courtesy Delta

X mark: The Monitor 1800 Series Jetted Shower XO features two directional adjustable jets, a showerhead, plus an extra outlet for the installation of a hand shower or an additional showerhead. In addition, it has a pressure balance, volume, and temperature control on the handle. Available in traditional and Victorian designs, the shower comes in a variety of finishes. Delta. 800-345-3358. www.deltafaucet.com.

Courtesy Kohler

Big easy: Clairette's sprayhead has an ergonomic design, which makes it easy to pull down, and a single-lever handle that facilitates water temperature and volume adjustments. It features a swivel-ball joint between sprayhead and hose to aid maneuverability, a 10-inch, high-arc spout for large pots, a MasterClean spray face to resist calcium buildup, and a quarter-turn ceramic disc valve. Kohler. 920-457-4441. www.kohler.com.

Courtesy Lutron

Maestro stroke: Light switches such as the Maestro are easier to operate than regular switches because they do not require fingering and manipulation and can be operated with an elbow. The microprocessor-based product features tap-on and tap-off operation, an LED indicator so it can be seen in the dark, and a 70-second delay shut-off option. Rated for incandescent, fluorescent, magnetic low-voltage, electronic low-voltage, and fan loads, the switch comes in two finishes and more than 20 colors. Lutron. 610-282-3800. www.lutron.com.

Courtesy Frigidaire

Swing line: Instead of the pull-down door of a traditional oven, this Gallery convection wall oven features a side-swing door that makes it easier for wheelchair-bound individuals or users with bad backs to access the interior. The oven can be installed at various heights, including under the counter, and it features a child-resistant lockout, electronic controls, and a self-cleaning feature. It is available in white-on-white or black-on-black. Frigidaire. 800-374-4432. www.frigidaire.com.

Courtesy Valli & Valli

Grab this: Lever handles, such as this sleek version, are much easier for people of all ages and abilities to operate. This particular version is designed by architect David Chipperfield and is made from solid brass. It measures about 5 inches long and projects about 2 inches. It is available in chrome, satin chrome, and brass finishes. Valli & Valli. 877-326-2565. www.vallievalli.com. For more product information, search ebuild, Hanley-Wood's interactive product catalog.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Augusta, GA.