By Denise Butchko
Many custom storage organizations are now incorporating the principles of Universal Design.
Incognito Custom Closets just completed a showroom display that features Universal Design options such as low-hanging areas and 3-sided drawers.

As closet design professionals, we are often charged with the mission of “maximizing space” so our clients can fit as many items as possible into their closets. A designer with experience in ways to do this can be worth her weight in gold (which is quite a lot if you’ve checked the price of gold lately!).
However, the time has come to consider a second “mission.” And it’s one that many closet designs inherently intend to incorporate already: Accessibility.
Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘Of course.’ Who amongst us would design a closet that was not accessible? Yes – it’s accessible because the section width comes out past the return wall. Yes – it’s accessible with a step stool, ladder or tall spouse. But what about accessible to someone who is disabled?
Now I’ll bet your mind is conjuring up pictures of wheelchairs and chrome grab bars. And you’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh – I have to have such big clearances that I’ll lose a lot of functional space.’ At least, that was the most common response when we asked members of the ACSP (Association of Closet and Storage professionals) if they had done any projects that involved Universal Design and its principles.
So, the questions become not only how do you define Universal Design – but also why even consider learning something that seems to do the opposite of the tasks we’re charged with on a daily basis?
For starters, because while most of us aren’t sure how to define Universal Design, most architects, designers and builders are. And they are increasingly incorporating these principles into their projects, frequently at the request of their clients.
So, what are the chances that “their” clients also fit the same description as “our” clients? If you were thinking that this niche of their client base fits into the disabled category – you would be right. And a common definition for disabled is “incapable of functioning as a consequence of injury or illness.”
Now consider this: 100% of us will be disabled at some point in our lives.
‘How so?’ you may be wondering. I’ll give you a personal example. I happen to be in the summer years of my youth and quite healthy. Yet just over a year ago I had foot surgery. I live alone, and I had no idea at the outset of this healing process that my wheeled desk chair would become my new best friend. It literally meant the difference between me “getting on with it” and not feeling like a burden to neighbors, friends and family. And I can assure you; the concept of Universal Design never even came into my consciousness (nor that of being “disabled,” even though by definition, I was). Universal Design as part of a solution to freer movement never dawned on me.
I hope you’re seeing things through different eyes right now. The definition of “disabled” casts a far wider net than what we typically picture. And, as a result, the definition of “their” clients and “our” clients has come a lot closer together.
Home Organization
According to Brad Davidson, president of Incognito Custom Closets, the company is partnering with the Bath Odyssey to create barrier-free combination closets and bathrooms. The above photo shows pull-out and drawer options.

Universal Design Defined
In its purest form – easy maneuvering is at the heart of Universal Design. Its job is to make life easier (and doesn’t each of us consider that part of our job description anyway?).
However, some of the most popular ways that it is defined include:
-The design of products and environments to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible without the need for adaptation or specialized design. (Ron Mace, The Center for Universal Design)
-Universal Design is a relatively new paradigm that emerged from "barrier-free” or “accessible design” and “assistive technology.” Barrier-free design and assistive technology provide a level of accessibility for people with disabilities, but they also often result in separate and stigmatizing solutions, for example, a ramp that leads to a different entry to a building than a main stairway.
Universal Design strives to be a broad-spectrum solution that helps everyone, not just people with disabilities. Moreover, it recognizes the importance of how things look. For example, while built-up handles are a way to make utensils more usable for people with gripping limitations, some companies introduced larger, easy-to-grip and attractive handles as features of mass produced utensils. They appeal to a wide range of consumers (Wikipedia).
The idea of Universal Design has gone way beyond ADA standards. It’s a way of thinking about design to accommodate everyone.
So how has this trend shown up in the custom storage industry?
In Memphis, TN, “We just completed a display in our showroom,” says Brad Davidson, president of Incognito Custom Closets. “We’re partnering with the Bath Odyssey to do a barrier-free combination closet and bathroom.”
Davidson shared that he’s been getting an increasing amount of requests for Universal Design. He finds that clients often come in with their contractors to check things out, which helps establish an opportunity for additional business with that contractor.
The specific ways he incorporates things into his displays is by showing things with no fronts, with rollout trays and with pullouts. He says you need to ask questions of the homeowner because each situation tends to be unique. Some people can’t reach high or low, others have arthritis, some are in wheelchairs and need things at laptop height.
In another situation, an entire residence, inside and out, is being built in Columbus, OH, that incorporates both Universal Design and Green principles. Born out of necessity (Rosemarie Rosetti had a tree fall on her during a cycling excursion that left her in a wheelchair), this amazing project demonstrates innovation at its finest.
Every facet of the homes’ design was analyzed ergonomically. And the closet, or “Wardrobe” as they refer to it, (and they’re not the only ones using that term so you might want to pay attention to that reference) is one of the most fascinating and fun areas, since it’s like “command central” of the house.
The laundry facilities are located there, which include a sink with knee space underneath so Rosetti can use it easily. There’s a fold-down ironing board (created specifically to meet this need by Iron-Away) installed at sitting height. The home has pocket doors with strategically placed hardware and handles. There are pull-out shelves specifically for luggage storage and easy packing, installed at wheelchair height (because those are Rosetti’s needs). Your client may be the opposite – having a hard time reaching low items because of arthritis or back pain.
Rosetti is incorporating products from Closetmaid’s “Master Suite” line to actually build out the “The Wardrobe” space. In addition, the home office is adjacent to “The Wardrobe” so Rosetti can multi-task with ease (special, soundproofing drywall is also being incorporated so there won’t be background laundry noise while she’s working).
She’s also designed a “roll-in” pantry that allows her easy access to all of the items she needs for “kitchen duty.”
Häfele America offers a number of accessible products including the pull-out table system pictured above.

What’s Available in Products
And just what sort of products translate the principles of Universal Design particularly well?
“There are lots,” says Sherry Kaye, marketing manager of the Häfele Chicago showroom. “Typically anything that can pull out to you and maximize space provides an effective solution. It can be a pull-out shelf, a pull-out rack or a rotation system.”
Häfele offers pull-out table systems, with or without supporting legs (depending upon the size), as well as an option to screw a drawer front panel onto the table top panel.
They have a variety of mechanisms for making almost anything into a pull out and their rotations systems have frames that turn 360 degrees with attachable baskets, fences and even tie and trouser racks.
And of course there are swivel ironing boards that can be installed at any height as well as wardrobe lifts.
Another really great combination of products that’s new to the market this summer are Storage Armoires’ that are offered by Rev-a-shelf. “There’s a ladies and a gentleman’s armoire, depending upon what kind of items need to be stored,” shared Shari McPeek, marketing manager.
They both fit into an 8-inch opening between two 16-inch-deep panels and you can easily add a front. It’s innovative pivoting action allows you to access either a 30-inch mirror or it’s interchangeable chrome or acrylic and velvet-lined storage compartments designed to hold ties or necklaces. It provides full accessibility and can also be incorporated with cubbies or drawers. And units can be customized/installed at low or high heights depending upon the individuals’ specific needs.
So check with your vendors. Many of them are exceedingly well equipped, knowledgable partners, just eager to contribute to the solutions. By exploring the product offerings, the ways to incorporate even more accessibility into your designs will go from intimidating and scary to exciting and helpful.
Bottom Line
The goal of this article is to get each of you to start thinking differently about Universal Design. It’s not about making things bigger and increasing the square footage, it’s about utilizing that square footage in a different, more effective, way. It’s about increasing awareness and getting people more informed about this very important area of design.
Denise Butchko, Butchko and Co., is a freelance design consultant in Chicago. For additional information or to make a comment, visit her Web site, or phone 312.399.7109.