Chapter 4: Circulation
These universal design features apply to hallways & pathways throughout the home and movement throughout indoor & outdoor living areas.
Residential Universal Design Building Code, 2023 version. © The Universal Design Project.
Hallways and pathways should be no less than 42" (107cm) wide at the narrow-most points.
42" (107cm) of minimum width at the narrow-most point is ideal for anyone who uses a mobility device, parents who push strollers, or to offer easy access for moving large items. Even if the full width isn’t used in its entirety, there’s an element of safety that results from adequate room to move side-to-side.
When considering furniture placement, ensure no less than 32" (81cm) of width between all points of travel.
Interior doors should be no less than 32" (81cm) wide.
Where possible, 36" (91cm) interior doors are ideal.
This applies to the width of the door itself. Doorways will often have less clearance when considering door jams and the thickness of the door, if on a hinge, when open. Swing-away hinges can add extra clearance if needed.
Interior thresholds should be flush, i.e., no change in height from the floor.
This includes transitions between rooms that may not be clearly defined as a threshold.
If you can’t easily roll a small ball (e.g., a tennis ball) over the threshold, then the threshold can create difficulty for some people. Just like the ball might stop with a threshold in the way, so will smaller wheels on the front of walkers and wheelchairs. If this happens to someone using a wheelchair, their chair may stop, but momentum will keep their body moving forward, leading to potentially falling onto the ground. This is also applicable for people who might have difficulty picking up their feet or have their arms full and cannot see where to do so.
No steps should be required to access any inside spaces. This applies to every area inside the home, including storage.
Access needs to be everywhere. Sunken rooms, elevated platforms, or any rooms with one or more steps are a no-go for universal design. Avoid areas with multiple levels unless there is a no-step option available. Living spaces at different floor levels (i.e., down a step, up a step) can help define different areas but they're confining to those who have trouble negotiating steps.
Steps prevent efficient movement throughout the home as any person must alter their movement pattern and divide attention to locate the steps for navigation.
Door hardware should be operable with one hand while not requiring any pinching or grasping.
Use door hardware that requires minimal physical effort, such as lever handles, pulls, electronic locks, and power door openers. Knobs and handle sets are difficult to use if hand function is impaired. Avoid anything that requires pinching or grasping for use.
The physical actions necessary to open a door can be difficult to maintain balance and can cause frustration or fatigue. The rule of thumb is that it should only require someone about 5 pounds of pressure to open a door.
Open doors should not obstruct paths of travel wherever possible.
Pocket doors and barn doors are great options for universal design. This applies to doorways between spaces and entrances to closets and pantries.
If space is limited, there are options to maximize clearance for interior doors that aren't realistic for most exterior doors. This allows for easier movement through the home for anyone, especially when moving furniture from room to room, carrying laundry baskets, or walking with children in tow.
Visual contrast should exist for transitions between spaces. Visual contrast can be achieved with color or pattern.
The color defining a space (e.g., flooring, door frames, etc) needs to have a minimum contrast ratio of 3:1 against adjacent space(s).
Contrast is a feature that assists anyone who has trouble with vision in identifying the separation between spaces. It also decreases the visual fatigue involved in navigating a space for any person so they are able to divert their attention to other tasks like talking on the phone or carrying items.
Avoid busy patterns (especially in wallpaper) to reduce visual noise.
Walls should contrast with skin tones for enhanced visual communication.
Color walls (especially blue tones) are ideal for creating contrast against skin tones, which is helpful for people who rely on visual communication methods like sign language. Neutral colors are fine but should be used carefully. Keep sight lines in mind when planning interior colors.
Consider including spaces for benches or seats (e.g., alcoves) in hallways or along longer paths of travel between spaces. These spaces can also be used for additional pieces of furniture for storage if rest areas aren't needed.
Some individuals have poor endurance and can fatigue quickly when traveling longer distances between spaces. A place to rest can make navigating the home easier and will encourage increased physical activity.
Floor and pathway surface types should be selected to minimize the potential for slips, trips, and/or falls. This includes long-term durability. Flooring and surface selection should be intentional and appropriate for all intended uses in spaces inside and outside of a home.
It’s important to choose flooring that will hold up to everyday use and will not break down or fall apart easily. Individuals who use mobility devices can inadvertently wear down flooring more quickly than what might be typical, so plan accordingly. Also, look for flooring that is easy to clean to make life easier for everyone.
There are many variables that contribute to slip resistance, such as flooring type, exposure to natural elements or other contaminants, or the type of footwear someone is (or isn't) using. It's important to accommodate as many scenarios as possible.
Loose rugs are a potential hazard for anyone, especially if they have trouble seeing or have decreased balance. This includes throw rugs. Don’t use them unless they are (1) recessed into a floor with no elevation change between the floor and the rug, and (2) without any gaps in the installation between the floor and the rug.
Wall-to-wall carpet is acceptable if the pile is ≤ 0.5" (1.25cm) and the carpet is either (1) permanently installed or (2) secured with backing or padding to minimize bunching or other movements.
Flooring should be minimally reflective, particularly in areas with direct natural light.
Natural light is important but can create glare that makes it difficult to confidently and safely navigate some spaces in a home. Reflective flooring can cause people to cover windows unnecessarily to block natural light, which can be detrimental to mental health.
The lighting design should include a combination of natural & artificial light sources that minimizes shadows and glare, day and night.
Lighting should minimize shadows and be designed to be as glare-free as possible. This is useful for everyone but is especially important for people who rely on visual means of communication. Lighting low to the floor or just above the floor can create cues about the direction to follow. Use low lights to help define the pathway, but don't make these lights a focal point.
Recommended: indirect and low lighting:
The use of indirect ambient lighting and low lighting that illuminates the floor without visible bare bulbs or translucent covers (from a seated or standing position) is ideal. Indirect lighting reduces eye strain and is more calming than direct lighting.
The option to adjust the intensity of ambient lighting (e.g., with a dimmer) should be used wherever possible.
While one-story living is ideal for universal design, elevators that provide access to every floor are the only solution for vertical circulation in multi-story homes.
Anyone should be able to independently access every part of the home.
There's a popular opinion that it's adequate to stack closets or add other features in floor plans that can support the future installation of an elevator. While the intention is good, accessibility will be limited, which is not what universal design is about.
Also, there should be a minimal dependency on an elevator if redundancy is unrealistic (e.g., small single-family homes vs. large multi-family buildings). The ability to safely and quickly exit a home in case of fire needs to be prioritized.
An elevator must provide access to any floor that is accessible by stairs.
If a home has multiple stories, an elevator that provides access to every floor is necessary for true universal accessibility. It's the only option to accommodate every homeowner, guest, or tenant.
The interior width of an elevator car should be no less than 36" (91cm).
The interior depth of an elevator car should be no less than 48" (122cm).
Elevators must be large enough to accommodate mobility devices. If possible, choose an elevator large enough to also accommodate a companion.
The entrances to an elevator car should be level with the floor outside of the door. The threshold should be no more than 0.0" to comply with 4.1.3.
Some elevators require a small step or the use of a small ramp to get in and out. These should be avoided unless recessed into the floor to create a level transition.
The elevator door(s) must open automatically or be able to be pushed open with less than 5 pounds of force from the inside without the need to manually unlatch door hardware. If doors need to be locked to prevent access from the outside when the car is on a different floor, they should unlock and unlatch automatically.
Small elevator cars that do not allow someone to turn around inside need to be easy to exit from inside. This is particularly important for people who use mobility devices.
This requirement may be waived if the interior floor space of the car is at least 5x5' (60x60" or 152x152cm). The door hardware must comply with 4.2.2.
Elevator controls should be highly visible against the interior wall of the elevator car.
Contrast is a feature that assists anyone who has trouble with vision. Elevator controls should be easy to see. Backlit controls are even better.
Lighting should be used inside the elevator.
There's no good reason for someone to ride an elevator in the dark and struggle to locate the controls or door hardware. Automatic lighting triggered by the door opening or by a motion detector is ideal.
The elevator should be able to return to a ground-level floor in case of a power outage.
If the power goes out, it's important for someone unable to navigate stairs to be able to access an exit safely.
Definition: This section defines "stairs" as any place where multiple steps are used together.
The width of the area where someone places their feet on a step should be no less than 36" (91cm) wide.
The depth of the area where someone places their feet on a step should be no less than 11" (28cm) deep.
The height between the top surface of stair treads should be no less than 5.5" (14cm) and no more than 7" (18cm).
Stairs need to be as safe as possible for universal design, which necessitates uniform dimensions for each step. Each stair should be deep enough to allow people to put most of their foot on the step when going up/down the stairs, unlike small steps on a ladder.
36" (91cm) of minimum width at the narrow-most point is ideal for anyone who uses a mobility device or to offer easy access for moving large items. Even if the full width isn’t used in its entirety, there’s an element of safety that results from space to move side-to-side.
Risers (the backs of steps) need to be enclosed.
Risers should not be open in order to prevent the possibility of someone stepping too far forward and catching a toe under the next step, which creates a fall risk. This also increases safety for small children.
Tread surfaces should be slip-resistant and not allow any type of footwear to slide easily.
Slip-resistant flooring choices on stairs in stairwells are important to reduce the occurrence of a trip or fall. It's important to choose flooring that will hold up to everyday use and will not break down or fall apart easily. Also, keep it easy to clean and make life easier for everyone.
Contrasting colors (light/dark) need to be used between the first 2" (5cm) of the front of the tread and the rear of the tread surface.
Visual contrast is a feature that assists anyone who has trouble with vision to identify separation between steps. It is also generally helpful for anyone navigating the stairs at night or early in the morning when it can be more difficult to see. The contrast on the tread surface is for when people are descending stairs.
Contrasting colors (light/dark) must be used between the nosing and the risers.
Visual contrast is a feature that assists anyone who has trouble with vision to identify separation between steps, or for anyone who has trouble seeing the stairs during darker hours. The contrast between the nosing or the radius of the tread edge and the risers is for when people are ascending stairs.
Handrails need to be installed on both sides of the stairs.
Handrails on both sides of the stairs are a universal design feature that gives people options for stabilizing themselves when going up or down the stairs.
Handrails need to be extended beyond the top and bottom steps, as well as be continuous throughout the entire stairwell if there are any landings or changes in direction.
Extending the handrail one foot beyond the top and bottom step increases safety by helping people maintain balance. They also serve as a tactile alert for people with vision impairments to indicate a transition is about to occur. Additionally, if the stairs change direction, curve the handrail around the walls for uninterrupted support.
A landing area with a minimum size of 48x48" (122x122cm) needs to exist at both the top and the bottom of the stairs.
A wide-open landing at the top and bottom of any stairwell is important for universal design because it provides adequate space to maneuver on and off the steps, and space for two-way passage. If mobility equipment is used, this space gives individuals and or other family members room to move around without barriers.
Both overhead lighting and stair lighting (low & close to steps) should be used to maximize safety.
Thoughtful and thorough lighting is necessary for safe and easy navigation of stairs. The objective should be to minimize shadows. The placement of light sources is important for people to be able to maintain focus on where they are going while avoiding glare.
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