A smart home for life

An ‘L’ shaped plan kitchen and dining area. Note the lower level ovens and toe space under the cupboards

An ‘L’ shaped plan kitchen and dining area. Note the lower level ovens and toe space under the cupboards

Whilst the population of Ireland as a whole is, in world terms, predominantly young, the people on this island are also a part of the general trend of living longer.

In the UK for example, the number of people over 65 is set to increase by nearly 50 per cent by 2032 to over 16 million.1 In ROI 22 per cent of the population will be over 65 by 2041.2 Additionally, in comparison to any other age group, there are higher proportions living in rural areas and most of this age group (79 per cent) own their own home. Yes, we are also fitter in our sixties and seventies but because we are living longer, more of us will require assistance for many years as we become less flexible and vulnerable to debilitating but not immediately life threatening conditions such as dementia. The cost of care is huge and it is well known that the quality of life for people who can continue to live in their own homes and communities is superior to the alternatives.

This article is an overview of firstly, the building blocks of Universal Design (UD), a framework for the designers and specifiers of new builds, extensions and renovations to create homes that are beautiful to live in for people of all ages, sizes and needs.

These homes are built to be future proof, able to cope with changing circumstances (for example, when we are older or disabled be that temporarily due to illness, an accident, or because of a long term illness) and all the while continue looking good and feeling good to live in. Then we turn our attention to specific measures to stylishly design your flexible and fit-for-purpose home in a very personal, rather than technological, sense.

Universal Design (UD)
It takes a lot of mental effort when you are fit and healthy to imagine a time when you won’t be. It’s a bit like making a Will, we seem to feel that doing so somehow brings the possibility of needing it closer. It is a false equation and you are likely to regret not planning ahead at a time when it is easy and far more cost effective. Building Regulations have already addressed some issues such as switches reachable by wheelchair users, wider doorways and level access to outside as well as a downstairs wc. Whilst these are a step in the right direction, UD goes much further by looking at a home in its entirety as well as its location and setting. UD also makes the important point that these homes should be of architectural merit both inside and out.

Good design works around who will be living in the house – it clearly needs to function for those who will use it most – but it should also take into consideration who will be visiting it, including family and friends. As mentioned above, building a house using UD principles and guidance doesn’t have to mean it’s going to be a featureless, soulless box that functions as a ‘living space’ with railings and ramps everywhere, as opposed to a ‘home’. UD encourages beautiful and elegant design and nowhere is this more important than the places where people live.

The UD approach is people centred with an aim to create homes that work regardless of the occupants’ circumstances – meaning it suits anyone who may use the building. A tall order perhaps, but this ambitious approach yields benefits that will be felt and enjoyed by everyone. It also, arguably, makes these homes more saleable as they suit a wider section of the market and are future proofed, thus reducing the potential for costs at a later stage.

Finally, building and moving house are two of life’s more stressful experiences. Even if you can stay in your own home, imagine yourself coping with say the trauma of an accident to yourself or a loved one and then organising building work which is likely to mean moving out for a period, as well as then managing the project. By incorporating as many as the following into your design now you can do much to minimise future stress and anxiety. Whilst aimed at new builds, there is much that is applicable to extensions and renovations.


UD home design quality features
These and the checklist following have been developed by the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (CEUD)
Location and approach: well integrated into the neighbourhood with clear, safe routes from bike, car or public transport to the entrance. Space should be available for accessible car parking with a drop off space for an adult carrying a child or shopping, someone on crutches or in a wheelchair, an older person and someone with visual difficulties.
Entering and moving about: level thresholds at doorways for simple, easy movement, cleaning and maintenance. Wide front and internal doors, for example, ‘Cat and Kitten’. This describes a door with two parts, one large the other small. The former is for everyday use but if you need a wider space both can be opened at the same time.3 Spacious entrances and hallways for multipurpose use and circulation.
Living spaces: flexible or open plan layouts with some ‘soft spots’ such as moveable internal walls (e.g. timber stud walls) allowing the expansion or contraction of the floor space according to family or personal need and allowing sufficient space for social interaction. Reinforced ceilings (e.g. doubling up on floor joists) or ‘hard spots’ (e.g concrete block walls or doubling up on timber stud walls) around the wc, shower and bath to support the easy future installation of handrails and drop down handrail supports as required. Space should be allowed in a bedroom for easy manoeuvring and access to an adjacent bathroom. Being able to see the location of the bathroom from a bed is a very important piece of future proofing, especially when a person gets older. Kitchens easily adapted for different layouts, similarly a wet room (that is, tanked with a floor drain) wc at entrance floor level which can become a shower room and finally, space for integrating laundry, storage and refuse.
Elements and systems: sockets, light switches and window sills at levels that are within easy reach of everyone. Details such as lever door handles and taps that are easy to use for everyone, especially young children. Controls and Building Management Systems to be simple and clear with systems having the ability to integrate for smart entertainment, energy efficiency, security systems and assistive technologies. There should be a choice of materials and colours with fittings and finishes that are easy to use, maintain and are attractively and smartly designed. Optimise the use of natural light, ventilation and energy efficiency.

Basic Universal Design checklist
• Permeable paving that is firm, non-slip, non-reflective, and suitable for all weathers.
• Easy to use pedestrian gate circa 900mm (3ft) wide.
• Easily accessible bin storage area near entrance to utility and kitchen.
• Paved area of circa 1m80 (6ft) across full width of house.
• Enclosed terrace as a winter garden.
• Level or gently sloping external landing outside each entry point of circa 1m50 × 1m50 (5ftx5ft).
• Circa 300mm (1ft) clear space on the leading edge of doors.
• Circa 1m80 (6ft) wide entrance hall with storage and natural light, rear door entry also provides cloak store.
• Entry level wc of circa 1m50 (5ft) × 1m80 (6ft) with side transfer space and outward opening door.
• Easily adaptable kitchen with space for occasional eating. Adjustable height worktops and sinks, the latter with flexible waste pipe, or a mix of fixed worktops at various heights. Oven and microwave fitted at a height accessible for all users.
• Large enough circulation spaces in kitchen for ease of movement and convenient opening of appliances, e.g. allow a minimum of 1m20(4ft) (1m80(6ft) is optimal) between opposing work surfaces.
• Bathroom (with wet room tanking and a capped shower drain outlet set into the floor) of circa 2m10 × 2m50 (7x8ft) that can be easily converted at a later date into a level entry shower room.
• Straight and simple flights of stairs with no winders.
• Utility room with raised space for washer and dryer for ease of access and accessible storage adjacent to kitchen.

Special considerations when extending and renovating with UD
Building from new is ideal, but what if you have a house and don’t want to move so are thinking of extending or renovating? According to the suppliers of equipment for people who need extra assistance, the biggest difficulty people face is with the circulation space. For decades the trend was to build homes with as many rooms as possible, but large in number didn’t equate to large in size and the result was lots of small spaces which are unsuitable for wheelchair users and awkward for people to pass in, especially if they are less able and use a mobility aid.
Bathrooms: put in a shower with level access and either tank the floor to create a wet room shower or put in a tray level with the floor surface and which is a minimum of 1.2sqm, making it suitable for people with mobility difficulties and for wheelchair use. Install a wc with a high level seat (there is no good reason, other than fashion, for the current, low level designs), which can be used by all ages. To make these changes retrospectively will cost around €8,000/£5,800 including destructive building works, and if you require a self-cleaning automatic wc that washes and dries the user that is a further €3,000/£2,175. These have three programmable settings available enabling three individuals to use the same facility. Installation requires an electric spur (the power supply can be fitted and brought into use when the situation demands) and the wc should be fed directly from the mains.
Stairs: A stair lift for a straight handrail costs around €2,000/£1,450 but this increases to €6,000/£4,350 if the rail is curved. For this you should include an electric spur at the foot of the stairs to provide power.
Bedroom: An electric spur in the ceiling to enable the fitting of a hoist in the future to assist with getting in and out of bed.
Technology: When a home is able to be adapted for modern technology it can make the difference between having to move and staying put. So much can be done on behalf of those living in the house, from switching heating and hot water on and off to running the lighting to more critical areas. Known as tele medicine (or tele health/tele care), it is now possible to monitor at home everything from your blood pressure to your heart, with the information sent directly to a hospital or clinic. These developments make it possible for people to continue to live in their own homes for much longer, safely and comfortably. 

Additional information
For more information on the design of homes from a UD approach:
‘Universal Design Guidelines for Homes in Ireland’ and ‘Universal Design Guidelines for People Living with Dementia, their Families and Carers’ are free to download as accessible pdfs from www.universaldesign.ie/Built-Environment/Housing
Disability Needs Belfast 9074 5333 and Dublin
01 452 3602 www.disabilityneeds.com
Sisk Healthcare (UK) Ltd. (Phillips Medical) Belfast 9066 9000 and Dublin 01 830 7499
Irwin Mitchell Solicitors (specialist in personal injury claims) offices throughout the UK London tel. 0207 404 3600 www.irwinmitchell.com

The companies listed below provide products & services relating to this article.

ProfessionCompanyAddressTel No.Website
Heat pumps & controlsAC HeatingClashmore, Co WaterfordTel: 058 23749www.acheating.ie
Timberframe house constructionAdvanced Timbercraft LtdNewtownabbey, Co AntrimTel: 9083 8951www.advancedtimbercraft.com
Vacuum & heat recovery ventilation systemsBeam Vacuum & VentilationMagherafelt, Co LondonderryTel: 7963 2424www.beamcentralsystems.com
Alternative Heating SolutionChoice Heating SolutionsKerrypike, Co CorkTel: 087 275 4012www.choiceheatingsolutions.com
Renewable/alternative energy)EvolutionBallylinan, Co LaoisTel: 059 8625411
085 8014339
Boilers, Solar, Oil & multifuel range cookers etcFirebird BoilersBallymakeera, Co CorkTel: 026 45253www.firebird.ie
Made-to-Measure garage doorsGarage Doors SystemsBallymena, Co AntrimTel: 2565 5555www.garagedoorsystems.co.uk
KitchensHannaway HilltownHilltown, Co DownTel: 4063 0737www.brookwoodfurniture.co.uk
Italian Home Appliance ManufacturerSmeg (UK) LtdOxfordshireTel: 01235 828 308www.smeguk.com
BathroomsSoaks BathroomsBelfastTel: 9068 1121

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About Gillian Corry

Gillian started the magazine in 2001. She is a graduate of Edinburgh University and a qualified domestic energy assessor. In 2010 Astrid Madsen took over the editorial chair and Gillian is now an occasional contributor.

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