Universal Design Features for Multigenerational Homes

Universal home design benefits more than just seniors who want to age-in-place. We take a look at the features that help create spaces that are accessible, adaptable, safe, and beneficial to every homeowner.

Irena Martincevic
Updated Nov 28, 2022
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10 min read

Since 1971, the number of people living in a multigenerational household in the U.S. has quadrupled with roughly 18% of households having more than one generation under one roof. With increasing financial strain and an aging boomer population, these figures are expected to continue increasing. And whatever the reason is for multigenerational households, one thing remains true for all of them; universal design can help benefit all members of the household no matter their age, size, or ability.

Universal design aims to make environments accessible and usable to the greatest number of people without the need for special adaptations or designs. Universal design can aid seniors in aging in place, provide a safe environment for toddlers, and make spaces more usable for disabled persons. These features increase safety, comfort, and function of the space. When dealing with multigenerational users, universal design makes sense, because everyone in the same household has a better chance of interacting with the space.

The number of multigenerational households in the U.S. in the past 10 years chart

Year Number of multigenerational homes Change from the previous year
2012 4,360,573 -
2013 4,416,618 +56,045
2014 4,492,618 +76,000
2015 4,554,060 +61,442
2016 4,608,043 +53,983
2017 4,609,083 +1,040
2018 4,604,114 -4,969
2019 4,669,234 +65,120
2020 4,703,227 +33,993
2021 4,858,205 +154,978

In the last 10 years, the number of multigenerational households in the U.S. has increased by 11.41%, according to the data from U.S. Census Bureau. The above chart shows this increase broken down by year. 

There are several reasons driving this growth in multigenerational living. These include financial reasons, with many young adults being unable to afford to go out on their own upon graduation of their schooling. An aging population also means that many families take in senior family members who no longer wish to live on their own, or who are no longer capable of doing so. According to the Family Matters report by Generations United, more than 98% of families who live in multigenerational households feel that this model works successfully for them, with most people reporting that they would continue living this way even after it is no longer necessary. 

While there can be some drawbacks, such as needing to modify the household to allow for the needs of added family members or the need to add additional space for family members these are often overcomeable situations. Once they are dealt with, though, most families find that these types of living situations improve the quality of life for everyone involved. Below are some of the most common types of remodeling and adaptations for universal design that may need to be done to modify a home for multigenerational living or to make a home more user friendly for all involved. 

Aging in Place Remodeling

Walk-in shower with grab bars

One of the benefits of multigenerational living is that it allows seniors to age in place, rather than needing to move to retirement homes, nursing homes, or other situations that would take them away from family and familiar surroundings. Aging in place is the process of modifying or remodeling a home to make it safe, comfortable, and convenient for seniors to stay there as they grow older. More than 88% of seniors agree that this is an important thing to undertake, but very few actually take steps to make these modifications. In order for some seniors to continue living at home, aging in place remodels are crucial for this to happen. And while many can be expensive, the alternatives, such as in-home help and health care, retirement homes, and nursing homes, are often more expensive as well as more disruptive. The average aging in place remodel costs between $3,000 and $15,000, depending on which features are modified. Let’s take a look at these different features.

Aging in Place Bathroom Design

The bathroom is one of the most important areas of the home to modify for aging in place, and for universal design in general. Bathrooms are one of the areas where people are the most vulnerable, as well as at risk from injuries such as slips and falls or scalds. Many universal design principles can make aging in place easier in the bathroom, such as using universal height toilets and sinks to avoid bending and stooping, and using lever handles on faucets and shower valves to avoid grasping. Other aging in place specific additions may include adding grab bars to the bathroom at a cost of $85 to $300, installing a barrier free shower for $4,900 to $12,000 or walk-in bathtub for $5,000 to $8,500. Other adaptations include adding additional lighting ($20 - $100), anti-slip flooring ($4,500 - $8,000) or mats, widening doors ($300 - $2,500), and adding anti-scald controls ($80 - $300).

Aging in Place Kitchen Design

The kitchen is often the next most important place to modify for aging in place. The kitchen is one of the most frequently used spaces in the house. By modifying it, older family members can continue to use it safely, remaining helpful and independent. Many kitchens already have countertops that are at universal height level, but if your kitchen is very old, they may need to be raised, or if you have a family member in a wheelchair, you may need to lower sections as well. In addition, many features for aging in place kitchen design are good for universal design as well. These include using lever faucet handles, installing pulls instead of knobs on cabinet doors and drawers at a cost of $150 to $350, and installing a more shallow sink to avoid bending for $200 to $3,000. If needed, doorways may need to be widened, this can have a cost of $300 to $2,500, or you may need to make transitions between the kitchen and the rest of the rooms of the home flush, which can cost $100 to $500 on average. Non-skid flooring is an option, or you can apply silicone impregnating floor sealers to any floor to help improve its slip resistance without the high price tag of $6,400 to $11,000 on average. These kitchen adaptations can cost $150 for new faucets with levers to $50,000 to change the layout of the kitchen to be more accessible.

Safe Mobility Design

Making sure that the space remains easy to safely navigate is a big part of aging in place design. As people age, many people develop problems with mobility as well as vision. Removing thresholds or flattening them can help remove trip hazards from the home. This has a cost of $100 to $500 for many doorways. Using high contrast railings and stairs or replacing steps with ramps at a cost of $1,400 to $3,000 whenever possible can make the home safer and easier to navigate. In addition, be sure to replace carpeting that is beginning to lift or bunch, which has a cost of $980 to $1,680, and either tack down the corners of throw rugs, or remove them to avoid more places where someone could trip. Increasing lighting in the home, and making that lighting easy to use, with rocker switches or sensors, which cost $350 to $500 per room can help make the space easier to navigate.

And if someone in the home is at risk of a fall hazard, having fall sensors in the home can also be beneficial. If someone were to fall, an alert could be sent to family members or professional help if needed. These cost around $20 to $200 to install, and ongoing monitoring can be purchased for around $10 to $20 a month after that.

Low Maintenance Backyard Landscape Design 

If your home has a yard, there are some adaptations that can make it more accessible and lower in maintenance for those aging in place as well. Adding level paths and walkways can make it easier for anyone to navigate including seniors or family members with mobility issues or vision impairments. Widening and leveling walkways can cost between $500 and $5,000 depending on the walkway size and material. Replacing fast growing grasses such as dwarf Fescue and shrubs with slower growing or drought resistant varieties can mean less mowing, watering, and weeding. This can save money over time, as well as the effort and maintenance that is required to keep the yard user friendly. 

Disability Home Remodeling

Stair lift

Remodeling for disabled family members can often look similar to remodeling for aging in place. However, disabilities can be unique, and therefore so can your remodel. Universal design principles often make the home easier to navigate for many disabled persons, including those with mild to moderate mobility problems, those with vision impairments, and those that need a calmer, more open environment. However, in addition to universal design adaptations, there are often other, more specific modifications that need to be made to a home to make it the least restrictive environment for a person with disabilities to live in. 

Many remodels for disabilities can be identical in cost and scale to remodels for aging in place. This includes common bathroom and kitchen remodels. However, in addition to these projects, there are several others that may need to be undertaken, depending on the disabled person living in the home and their individual needs. 

A wheelchair user, for example, may need ramps to enter homes that have steps, with most ramp projects costing $1,700 to $5,000. Once inside, if the home is not a single level, elevators may be needed to allow the wheelchair user to have full access to the home. Elevators can cost $35,000 to $60,000 to add to an existing home.

Other types of projects may include high contrast painting and adding lighting for the visually impaired, as well as removing curbs and installing flat thresholds. For deaf or hard of hearing family members, flashing smoke alarms and door bells can be beneficial additions. Wheelchair users that are completely non-ambulatory or that need help from a caregiver may need even more adaptations to tubs or showers, as well as additions to bedrooms such as harnesses and lifts. Because these projects are so tailored to the user, it helps to use universal design as the base of the home, then to make changes as needed to increase the function of the space for those that need it. 

Childproofing Home

A fork touching the outlet with cover

Another thing to consider in homes with multiple generations under one roof, is the fact that young children often make up a large percentage of the residents. Childproofing is often necessary to keep young kids safe, but in a multigenerational household, it’s important that any childproofing not also make the home less accessible for seniors or disabled family members. Gates, doorknob covers, and cabinet locks can all be effective at keeping young children out of areas of the home. They can also be effective at keeping other family members out as well.

Therefore, put some thought into the various childproofing projects that can make the home safer, without making it less functional. This can include using outlet covers that swing to one side, rather than needing to be removed to utilize a plug, as well as choosing furnishings with rounded corners, rather than sharp. Some things can also be used in universal design to make the space safer for young children as well as adults. These can include using anti-slip flooring or anti-slip mats in bathrooms and showers, and either lowering the water temperature at the heater or installing anti-scald devices on faucets. Securing furniture to a wall so it doesn’t tip also makes it safer for everyone in the home to use, regardless of abilities. 

Finally, with so many people under one roof, it is often common to add a space to the home just for children that can be made safe for them. This can include bedrooms or playrooms designed just for their needs. The average cost of a new bedroom addition is $30,000 to $100,000 depending on size and location. Another idea is to add an ADU or accessory dwelling unit onto your property. This can allow aging family members to be nearby, getting the benefits of having them near, without having to compromise on their or your child’s safety. The average cost of this type of “backyard cottage” is $56,000 to $180,000, provided you are zoned to add one. 

Universal Home Design For Everyone

Disability is something that can happen to anyone at any time. And aging is something that happens to us all over time. By using universal design features in a home from the start, you make it easier for people of all ages and abilities to use and interact safely with a space. It also becomes easier to make any additional needed modifications later to meet individual needs. Whether you are remodeling with an eye to the future, or you’re making your home more accessible for your multigenerational living situation, keep universal design tenets in mind as you go. This will help ensure that the space is comfortable, successful, and functional for everyone involved. 

Author

Irena is an industry analyst at Fixr.com. She analyzes and looks for visual ways to simplify data. She researches and writes about home improvement and personal finance.