A Room-by-room Guide to Inclusive Design
What is inclusive design – and why is it important for all our homes if we want them to be truly sustainable?
While you’ll have heard of accessible design – which, broadly, facilitates wheelchair access and is often required to meet Building Regulations in many public or commercial spaces – it’s often confused with inclusive design, which goes way beyond legal requirements, slopes and wide doorways. As well as creating accessible spaces, inclusive design also takes in the 92% of people with disabilities who don’t require a wheelchair. It increasingly also caters to a whole raft of other considerations, from age to sex and gender to race, mental health and wellbeing, ethnicity, heritage, faith and culture, and even needs arising from hormonal fluctuations, such as those prompted by pregnancy, breastfeeding, menstruation, IVF treatment and menopause.
Of course, not all of this is relevant to all homes, but there are lots of inclusive ideas from public design that can help us to better shape our domestic environments to be more comfortable now, as well as futureproof and sustainable. Below are a few key points you could consider for each room in your home.
Architect Oliver Leech recently completed Butterfly House (pictured), a beautiful, two-bedroom garden annexe for his client’s 70-something mother, and says, “In kitchens, storage should be easily accessible and practical. Cooking and getting crockery down should be really easy.”
At Butterfly House, he excluded wall units for this reason. He also included an island on castors. “The idea of it being flexible was key,” he explains.
Varied seating options are helpful, says inclusive design specialist and interior designer Becky Storey of Storey Interiors, highlighting that bar stools may be tricky for some older people with lower core stability.
In our recent piece on designing for neurodiversity, architect and inclusive design consultant Stephanie Kyle raised the importance of good ventilation in kitchens, particularly for those with heightened sensory awareness, common among neurodivergent individuals. She explained that good airflow means “if someone burns toast, you can get that smell out quickly”.
More: How to Design a Multigenerational Kitchen
“Storage can be really lacking in homes,” Becky says. And in hallways, that lack can result in trip hazards and tricky routes in and out, whether you’re overrun with children’s paraphernalia or have walking frames to house.
A dedicated cupboard for buggies or mobility equipment will always be useful (consider one with a socket to allow charging). Measure the largest item that may need to be stored in there and, with the addition of adjustable shelving, it’ll be a flexible space.
“It all also frees up circulation space in the property, creating a safer way to move around it,” Becky adds.
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Menopause or menstruation-induced “brain fog” – finding it hard to concentrate – is a reality for many. “A clear, clean space with fresh air to work in can massively help,” Becky says. “Personally speaking, I’m dyslexic, so my concentration can really fluctuate. Clutter and lack of storage make a huge difference to the ability to focus.”
Plants can also help on this front. Not only are they known for boosting feelings of wellbeing, they can also help to screen and quieten spaces and clean the air.
“Having the opportunity to stand is massively helpful, too. You get better blood flow, which will help with concentration,” Becky says.
For anyone prone to migranes, texture is a consideration. “Avoid harsh white desk surfaces and go, instead, for a muted version or natural wood,” Becky advises. “This reduces glare.”
Becky also consults on inclusive office design and always aims to give employees customisable work stations. Overhead lighting can exacerbate migraines, so she always specifies desk lamps.
Equally, for pregnant or menopausal women, comfort can be greatly improved by being able to control the temperature in their personal space. At work, this may mean providing breakout rooms where people can retreat to with their laptops. “At home, this is obviously much easier to do,” she says.
“If you have the space, en suites offer independence and privacy within a shared property,” Becky says. A ground floor facility is another bonus and, if you’re redoing one, make it grab-rail-ready by reinforcing the walls. “You’ll save money and time on retrofitting the walls later on,” she says.
Consider, also, making the opening wide enough for a wheelchair and creating space and plumbing to put in a shower, potentially at a later date, as getting in and out of a slippery bath can be difficult or scary if you’re older or have compromised mobility. Oliver explains it’s now prescribed in Building Regulations that new builds have an accessible downstairs loo and shower. “Even when it’s not prescribed by the regulations, we are including accessible shower spaces in our deisgns, to futureproof the house,” he says.
Bins, opening windows and a working lock are also a considerate addition for all types of guest.
More: How to Plan for a Bathroom Renovation
Becky highlights the importance of seating that’s easy to get in and out of, especially for pregnant women or those with mobility difficulties. “Seating that’s too low – below about 48cm from the ground – can be problematic,” she says, “or seating that slopes down at the back, because it requires a lot more upper body strength to pull yourself up. The same goes for sofas that have really soft cushions or where the seat is very deep.”
She adds that some textured or patterned fabrics can be distressing to people with Sensory Processing Disorder, while too-smooth surfaces may pose problems for older people. “Leather can be quite slippery for a person with lower core stability, because there’s not enough resistance on the fabric,” she says.
For some less mobile people, Becky adds, “Also reduce the amount of times they have to get up to turn on a light, get the remote or use a coffee table by having everything within reach.”
Becky designed this house just outside Bristol to accommodate three generations.
Multigenerational design is key to inclusive design, since it covers a number of demographics at once: new mothers; young children; young adults still living at home; older people and those with mobility difficulties or low sight or hearing. Create a home that works for them all and you’re well on the way to a fully futureproofed space.
“What I always try to consider is how a space will flex and adapt, not just to everyday life, but in years to come,” Becky says. “So think, are you going to have children? Do you have a parent coming to live with you? How would the space accommodate them?” As such, this project features generous circulation space, step-free surfaces, bedrooms downstairs and a self-contained suite upstairs.
With mobility equipment in mind, Becky advises having sockets in more places than you think you’ll need them, so different layouts and needs can easily be accommodated. “You could put one near the entrance or outside, so a mobility scooter could be charged,” she suggests. “More sockets also mean you can provide more lighting, adjusting levels for older eyes.”
Similarly, have easy-to-press switches in a contrasting colour to your walls so they’re easy to see. And position them at a good height for all ages – according to Becky, around 1m-1.2m is perfect.
For older inhabitants and the very young alike, factor in thresholds between rooms. “Make those transitions as seamless as possible. If you do have steps, highlight them – perhaps with different colours for the edge or risers and the treads,” Becky says. “Contrast is really helpful for all ages.”
For older or younger relatives living with you, Becky says, “A nice way to create privacy, perhaps a space to retreat to for a private phone call or for watching a movie, is to make use of dead spaces. Could you build in a little seating nook on a landing, for example?”
On the same theme, she adds, “When sharing a house, a space where you can pause before you come in and have to start interacting is good – an indoor porch or somewhere to sit and take off your shoes.”
Inclusivity should also look good. At Butterfly House, Oliver explains, “We thought first how to create a beautiful home that anyone would really enjoy living in,” he says. “And then about how to make it better for someone getting older. The most successful designs are the ones that are flexible for everyone to enjoy, and the ones that are beautiful.”
What kind of inclusive features would you add to your next project? Let us know in the Comments.
* According to the Office for National Statistics, between 2011 and 2021, the number of 20- to 24-year-olds living with their parents rose from 44.5% to 51.2%, while the numbers of 25- to 29-year-olds living at home rose from around one in five (20.1%) in 2011 to more than one in four (26.7%).