universal design


The fundamental goal of Universal Design is to fully consider the needs of people with physical disabilities and challenges. I have a long-held belief that our built environment should be accessible to all people. In 1990, I embraced the onset of the Americans with Disabilities Act and eagerly included the provisions of ADA Accessibility Guidelines in my public work. Then, in 1999, I was drawn even deeper into the world of accessible environments when my then 18 year old daughter suffered spinal cord injuries as a result of an automobile accident (Jessica is a C6/C7 quadriplegic). From that fateful day forward, I have been a passionate practitioner of design that is accessible by all. 

Here are a few thoughts to be considered when considering Universal Design:

  • “Design is powerful and profoundly influences our daily lives and our sense of confidence, comfort and control. Variation in ability is ordinary, not special, and affects most of us for some part of our lives.”   Valeri Fletcher, Institute for Human Centered Design.
  • Universal Design is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible and without the need for adaptation or specialized design”. Ron Mace, FAIA, The Center for Universal Design, NC State University.
  • Universal Design creates places for individuals, families and seniors, recognizing that people’s abilities change over time.
  • Humans come in a wide range of abilities, sizes, ages, cognitive and sense acuity. We must embrace designing for the range, not for some narrow portion considered the “norm”.

7 Principles of Universal Design (ideas to inspire creative design solutions):

  1. Equitable Use - Consider diverse abilities - can everyone operate the window? 
  2. Flexibility - Use it with either hand, when seated, when standing. 
  3. Simple & Intuitive - A door push bar that people don’t try to pull. 
  4. Perceptible Information - Communicate w/ touch + sound + language. 
  5. Tolerance for Error - Readable, clear environments minimize hazards. 
  6. Low Physical Effort - Avoid bending, reaching, high effort controls. 
  7. Size & Space for Approach & Use - Can anyone get in and use an area? How about two people together? 


As a person who values learning and teaching, I have enjoyed sharing my acquired Universal Design knowledge and experience, as follows:

  • Co-presenter of “The New Sustain-Ability, Design for All Abilities” at GreenBuild (USGBC’s national convention).
  • Co-presenter of “A New SustainABILITY” at Sustainable For ME workshop, co-sponsored by Alpha One and AIA Maine.
  • Author of “Design For All Abilities”, feature article in May 2016 issue of Maine Home + Design magazine.
  • Author of “Sustainable & Accessible”, featured in August 2012 issue of Maine Home + Design magazine.
  • 363HOUSE blog, chronicling the design and construction of an award-winning, accessible, near net-zero energy house in Portland, Maine.
  • “363 House: Combining Environmental Sustainability with Universal Design”, feature article in April 2013 issue of Universal Design Newsletter.
  • “Accessible Farmhouse and Barn”, featured case study in the book The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages & Abilities, author Deborah Pierce, Taunton Press, 2012.
  • THIS OLD HOUSE - Essex Series (2013).  Episode Three,  “One-Level Living”, a four-minute feature segment wherein Master Carpenter Norm Abram visits Bucksport, Maine to meet architect John Gordon and tour the accessible house he designed for his quadriplegic daughter, Jessica. View the video here.


My primary experience is providing residential design solutions for people with spinal cord injuries and the elderly.  I have performed accessibility assessments and provided accessible design solutions for many schools, municipal buildings, libraries and other public places. In August 2015, I received an Honor Award for 363HOUSE in Portland, Maine from the SustainABLE for ME Design Awards celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Feature article in May 2016 issue of Maine Home + Design (click on image for larger view).