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We appreciate your interests in Universal Design, a global movement of inclusive design practice initiated at NC State University College of Design. The Center for Universal Design is currently not active due to funding challenges. We are working to revive the Center, hopefully in the near future. We are unable at this time to provide assistance to your design inquiries.

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Future Housing Now: The Next Generation Universal Home

By Rex J. Pace


It has been nearly two decades since Ron Mace coined the term "universal design," yet we are just beginning to see the emergence of this concept in the mainstream housing market. The promotion and marketing of several recent projects is bringing visibility to the concept of universal design in housing.


One noteworthy development is the "Next Generation Universal Home." This project, one of the last that Ron worked on, represents the collective experience of the Center staff and identifies specific features and design elements which can be incorporated into every home.The Next Generation Universal Home was developed by the Center in collaboration the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper, while planning a feature describing future housing trends for the retiree market, sought the Center’s assistance to define "the house of the future." We created the concept design illustration, to show how housing can evolve to satisfy the needs of a changing market while retaining many of the features that most home buyers request. The term "next generation," recognizes that new home design is not accomplished in radical shifts, but as part of an evolution in thinking. The original illustration accompanied the article, "Down with Doorknobs," in the September 14, 1998 issue of the Wall Street Journal.

Goal and Features

The primary goal in developing the Next Generation Universal Home was to raise awareness of what is possible using current building methods and technology. The house was conceived as a holistic environment——living spaces designed, not for a specific users, but for everyone.

The basic layout of the home is based on typical American house designs currently being constructed in the U.S. Moderate to upper-end suburban house styles were used as models to demonstrate that universal concepts can be effective in popular home styles and do not require unconventional or "space age" approaches.

Features like reinforced walls for grab bars and level entrances, while easy to implement, run counter to traditional construction methods. The house layout reflects some recent trends in house design that are likely to continue. Many of these are conducive to and supported by universal design concepts, most notably the idea of open, or flexible-use spaces. A first floor master bedroom and bath can be used as a suite for care of an elderly parent or relative if necessary. An additional first floor bedroom can be designed to accommodate guests or double as a home office. Compartmentalized baths can be used by more than one person. Other popular spaces such as a "mudroom," a shared bathroom, spacious master baths and walk-in closets, and a computer "niche" have been included. In comparison to most of the fixed features of the past, this design relies on adjustability to accommodate the widest range of users.

Height-adjustable counter tops are used in the kitchen and bathrooms. Rotating and adjustable height shelves maximize storage. Toilets have height adjustable seats. Bathing spaces allow more than one method of use——standing, sitting, or reclining——including the multi-mode bathing fixture concept developed by the Center.

All of the illustrated features are technically possible now, although some are not widely available. Features such as adjustable counter tops or vertical rotating shelves are available in very limited choices, while others such as the multi-mode bathing fixture are not currently manufactured.

One obvious element of the Next Generation Universal Home is its upper floor. This may run counter to many people’s notion of what is a universally designed home. However, two-story homes will continue to be built because of the savings in construction costs. The Next Generation Universal Home provides several invisible options for efficient and cost saving modifications to gain access to the second story. The first is a stairway designed to accommodate the installation of either a chair or platform lift. The design of the stairway is critical——if the stair turns or if there is insufficient space at the top and bottom of the stairway, lifts cannot often be installed. Here, the stairway width is increased, additional space is provided at the top and bottom of the landing to disembark from and to store a lift, and electrical connections are provided.

Secondly, the house contains stacking storage closets, with removable floors, in the center of the house. The flooring when removed, exposes an elevator shaft. This allows the installation of an elevator without disrupting either the layout or the aesthetics of the house and saves on retrofit costs. The elevator option, while potentially expensive, is integral to the house and less obtrusive than a stair lift.


The Next Generation Universal Home and the work of others reflect the increasing sophistication and application of universal design in single-family home construction. The next century promises new innovations in housing resulting from advances in computer technology, manufacturing processes, materials applications, and areas yet undiscovered. If these are approached in a thoughtful way with a commitment to the end user, more effective solutions than those now existing can be implemented. Ideally, the next generation of housing will be more inclusive and bring our built environment truly closer to a universally usable one.

  © Copyright 2008 Center for Universal DesignCollege of Design, North Carolina State University
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