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A Beginner's Guide to Universal Design

Imagine a graceful home, beautiful hotel, fun playground or bustling restaurant. Now, imagine all of the people for which these spaces are designed. Are the people all the same? Of course not. Everyone who experiences a designed space brings his or her unique story.

Most folks in the design and build community know about ADA requirements. As a refresher- ADA is a prescriptive set of codes and regulations to accommodate people with disabilities in public spaces. These laws are critical as access standards and many people have fought hard to bring them into existence.

As we approach nearly any project, we must be cognizant of ADA and understand how and where to apply these regulations. A few major tenets of ADA include: ensuring routes are accessible, minimum of one, but not less than 5% of the surfaces dedicated to ADA seating, and the aisles between fixed seats must be at least 36 inches wide. Of course, there are lots of other regulations as well.

While ADA is tremendously important in any design/build project, there is a movement that goes much further than ADA. This strategy is called Universal Design.

Black Hound Design was fortunate to speak with Jeni Finnigan, the Founder and Owner of Unbounded Spaces, a design company specializing in Universal Design. Jeni has a unique background, with years of clinical experience as an Occupational Therapist. She also has the Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) designation through the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). In short, this lady is truly an expert in Universal Design, and knows her stuff!

But first: What is Universal Design?

I find that many people, at least in the residential world, seem to consider UD and ADA synonymous. They are not,” said Jeni. “Universal Design recognizes that the vast spectrum of human performance is normal and expected. When applied to design of the built environment (in which we spend 90% of our time) it results in spaces that not only decrease or eliminate barriers- but also provide flexibility and give people options. All of this benefits the majority and likely includes many groups (children, older adults, expecting mothers etc.…) that may not otherwise be considered in the design process. It essentially creates an environment that is far more inclusive than a set of laws can require.”

What are some design tips and considerations for Universal Design?

“Related to design strategies it is important to remember that physical access is only one facet to consider in design,” Jeni said. “Some of the other areas that contribute to an inclusive environment are: the way our brains process information-understanding, cognition, perception, and the social/emotional component of our interaction with a space-this can be mental wellness or the feeling of being respected/supported with choice.”

Jeni went on to describe several fascinating tips: “One great example is the curbless shower. By removing the 3-6” curb the shower now becomes more usable for a greater population of people..from toddlers needing a rinse off, to someone recovering from a surgery, to a grandparent whose balance may not be what it used to be. It also is more likely that a dirty dog in need of a hose down will willingly go into it without the curb! Imagine opening the usability even to the family pet by just removing the curb.

I often look at lighting: natural & artificial, color, sheen (paint, tile, countertops, flooring) in addition to circulation and clearances for ways to make environments more inclusive.

There are many ways to incorporate universal design. Each environment is as unique as the people who enter it. One of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible, has a fantastic episode titled “On Average”. It is a quick 20 min listen but has a very powerful point. That is, if we design for the average person, we design for no one. We all fall onto the ability spectrum at various points. Everyone’s position on the spectrum will change multiple times throughout their lifespan. The design of the environment dictates who is able to participate in that space.

If we design stairs/steps to enter a space, we are excluding anyone who cannot negotiate them, whether that is due to a visible or invisible impairment. If we design a playground with mulch or wood chips, we exclude those on wheels from playing there, those with balance or sensory challenges, and those babies who still put everything in their mouths!”

How did she become so interested in Universal Design?

According to Jeni, “I became interested in Universal Design when I learned there was a very real way to apply my nearly two decades of clinical practice, and everything I knew about the human body and mind, to the design of the built environment. I learned that I could provide a lens around human performance that could add to the discussion and design process to seamlessly make environments more inclusive.”

Jeni has extensive experience in applying Universal Design to her work. She has consulted for dozens of residential spaces with remodel and build projects, for which she has won several awards. She’s also enjoyed speaking on the national stage, local level, and has taken on many community projects.

What project is Jeni most proud of?

“I think I am the proudest of a kitchen remodel in which the clients embraced almost every suggestion around UD that I threw at them,” she said. “It resulted in a space that the clients tell me they love just as much with each passing year! We ended up winning an award on this one too which made it even more special!”

What is Jeni most excited about right now?

“I am beyond excited and incredibly grateful to Black Hound Design Company for being truly energized by this way of thinking and using their platform and this post to educate and inspire people to make environments more inclusive.

I am so excited to bring my inspiration and expertise into the commercial setting. There is a bright future for truly inclusive environments if we can begin to reframe the way we think about who we are designing for and what makes a space truly inclusive.

I am also excited to continue my work in the residential space making a difference in each of my client’s lives and spreading the idea of UD thinking to more and more people. There is so much to look forward to!”

From the IDeA Center at the University at Buffalo:

“Universal Design is a design process that enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness, and social participation.” - Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012

To learn more about Universal Design, check out:

And to work with Jeni, contact her at:


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