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Universal design, accessible design, visibility, and aging in place are all terms that are becoming more and more familiar as more and more homes are being designed and constructed using the principles these concepts embody, collectively “universal design.” While much of this is driven by the need to improve and grow a residential building stock that is responsive to the needs of people with disabilities and an aging population to better allow independent living in one’s own home, many of the fundamental design features that are key to these concepts benefit everyone regardless of physical ability or age.

When it comes to windows, doors and skylights in universal design, there are three primary aspects that need to be considered up front. They are ease of entry into the home from pedestrian and vehicular arrival points and into the dwelling, ease and convenience of opening and closing windows, doors and skylights, and location of operating hardware for them – handles, locks, latches, shading devices, etc.

Entry Doors

The first and foremost consideration with an entrance door whether it be a side-hinged swinging door or sliding patio door is the threshold. The threshold needs to provide for a smooth transition from the exterior to the interior of the home. Simple enough on the face of it right?  However even a fraction of an inch in vertical rise in the threshold without an appropriate bevel or ramp can be a very significant impediment to the ability of a wheelchair, scooter or assistive walking device to easily maneuver across it. Any vertical rise in the threshold on either side of the door should not be taken for granted. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the accessibility requirements applicable to multi-family construction under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and model building codes such as the International Building Code (IBC) all have specific, mandatory requirements for ensuring thresholds are accessible and they are requirements universal design follows for accessible entrances.

Meeting these requirements is a challenge because of additional requirements for air and water infiltration and energy efficiency that entry doors must also meet. Fortunately, many exterior entry door manufacturers have developed optional sill designs that meet all of these needs which is a must for universal and accessible design.

Operability of windows, doors and skylights

Next comes operability for windows, doors and skylights both in terms of ease of operation – opening, closing, locking, latching, shading, etc., and the location of the operating hardware devices to ensure they are within appropriate reach ranges especially with respect to sitting in a wheelchair or scooter.

Ease of operation is based upon the maximum force needed to initiate and maintain motion for opening and closing a window, door or skylight, and for operating hardware devices such door handles, locking/unlocking and latching devices, etc. Operating hardware devices should also be operable with one hand and not require tight grasping, pinching or twisting. While operability is more dependent upon on individual capabilities, the ADA, FHA and model building codes likewise have minimum provisions that are considered to be adequate as minimum requirements for operability. Those requirements are mandatory for commercial and most multifamily construction and serve as good guidance for universal design.

The AAMA/WDMA/CSA North American Fenestration Standard (NAFS) also includes minimum operating forces requirements that windows, doors and skylights must meet in order to be NAFS certified. That is another good reason why builders, remodelers and architects should rely upon credible certifications such as WMDA’s Hallmark Certification to ensure minimum reasonable standards for operability are met.

As with door thresholds, manufactures are developing innovative ways to meet these requirements through both manual and automated controls.

Location of operating hardware devices

It is also important for operating hardware devices to be located within reasonable reach ranges to the extent possible. Reach ranges are generally based upon the ability of individual in a wheelchair or scooter to reach the device. While height is critical, adequate maneuvering floor space around the device, especially at both sides of an entry door, should also be provided. Like with operability requirements, the ADA, FHA and model building codes have minimum provisions that are considered to be adequate as minimum requirements for reach ranges and maneuvering spaces associated with them. They likewise are mandatory for most multifamily and commercial construction and serve as good guidance universal design.

Learn more:

There are a growing number of resources for good guidance on universal and accessible design. Here are just a few:

Jeff Inks

Sr. Vice President, Advocacy, WDMA

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