About Universal Design: Applications For Aging In Place & Toronto Real Estate

Design, Healthy Home


Welcome to the Urbaneer Blog, where we discuss all facets of real estate, housing, and home! I’m Steve Fudge – the proprietor of Urbaneer.com – who has been operating as a realtor and property consultant for 34 years in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


I recently designed a contemporary multi-level residence that will be set into an embankment just outside Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island where the open plan Entertainment Space & Primary Bedroom Suite enjoy panoramic ocean views from its top floor perch. On the floor below are multiple bedrooms, multiple washrooms, a media room with a kitchenette, and a flex room with a private exterior entrance and terrace so it can accommodate multi-generational living if required. At grade, a 2-car garage and expansive workshop with a washroom will be dedicated to the needs of the owner/builder. During our discussions, I suggested we ensure the few hallways are at least 4 feet wide, and we incorporate pocket doors that glide & pivot doors that hinge. I recommended floor-to-ceiling windows, a wheelchair-accessible washroom, and the opportunity to convert the three 5×5 foot closets stacked on top of each other in the dwelling’s central circulation space into a vertical shaft for a future elevator.

Why? Because in 2024, creating adaptable accessible barrier-free options in a sun-kissed contemporary custom-built multi-level residence increases the pool of potential purchasers which could facilitate a faster sale for more money. After all, just over half of Canada’s 9.2 million baby boomers – the population cohort born between 1946 and 1965 – are over the age of 65 years while the other half are under. This massive swell of seniors entering their Golden Years – and their possible care-giving children – are going to be paying more and more attention to matters of aging in place.

Last month, in my Dear Urbaneer post entitled, Do We Age In Place, Downsize, Cohouse Or Move To A Retirement Community, I counseled a couple exploring their retirement living options, which included the possibility of upgrading their existing residence so that they can comfortably age in place.  In it, I touched on the concept of Universal Design (UD) as a helpful approach for seniors looking to create a safe living environment. This design concept is not just useful or limited to those wanting to age in place, however. Universal design embraces a philosophy that the highest and best use of products and environments is when they’re singularly designed to serve all people, regardless of their age, size, or physical limitations, to the greatest extent possible.

The obvious benefits of this philosophy make me wonder why its space planning practices haven’t become an extension of our Building Code. After all, rather than simply meeting compliance standards, wouldn’t life be simpler for the collective ‘we’ if all interior and exterior spaces were easy to access, safe to navigate, and spatially inclusive regardless of the individual’s circumstance? Navigating our built environment and finding suitable accommodations should not be exponentially challenging for those with disabilities, nor as people age, given this is the fate for most of us. This lack of collective foresight ultimately serves to disadvantage each of us.


* Image courtesy of the RL Mace Universal Design Institute, with thanks!


The Principles Of Universal Design

Universal design as a concept originated in the United States in the 1980s, when architect Ron Mace, who had polio, set out to make built environments not only beautiful but as usable and accessible as possible for everyone, regardless of age, stage, ability or disability (and really, what more beautiful design is there than that?)

In Mace’s words, “Universal design is design that’s usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

As development shifted towards creating barrier-free living, it became apparent that a one-size-fits-all does not work. For example, someone with mobility issues may require a ramp or elevator at home, whereas someone with limited sight might need assistance with visual distinction, such as high-contrast or audio cues.

So, a strategy was developed; universal design incorporates seven different principles: a built environment must be equitable, flexible, intuitive, perceptible, safe, comfortable, and appropriately sized. This means that it is adaptable to whatever people may need – for example having rooms that are appropriately sized to accommodate a wheelchair or walker or having grab bars installed in the shower for safety.

Keeping that in mind, if you are keen on embracing universal design as a means of truly futureproofing your home to age in place, it is recommended that you approach this as a comprehensive and cohesive retrofit of your entire residence rather than making band-aid modifications piece by piece. In other words, it’s not uncommon for a homeowner to install specific features to accommodate their immediate needs (say a shower bench) within existing limiting conditions that may not truly serve their needs optimally nor add value to the property. Not to imply resale value should take priority over the freedom of choice by someone who has the money to spend, but more to the notion that the individual is not only resolving their immediate needs but paying it forward by investing in creating an environment that will optimally serve others with needs in the future.



The Growing Need For Universal Design

It wasn’t quite five years ago that Canadian policymakers, recognizing the need for universal design, established the Accessible Canada Act legislation that aims to realize a barrier-free Canada by 2040. And they mean truly barrier-free. The Accessible Canada Act defines a barrier as “anything—including anything physical, architectural, technological or attitudinal, anything that is based on information or communications or anything that is the result of a policy or a practice—that hinders the full and equal participation in society of all persons.

Within the past year, CMHC created a guide (February 2023) for developers on incorporating universal design in new multi-residential buildings, followed by a guide (April 2023) on universal design for high-use, task-oriented areas, such as kitchens, laundry, and washrooms.

The merits of universal design are being embedded in our collective consciousness by the Canadian government because, statistically, odds are pretty high that you, or someone in your household, will require the accommodations that universal design proffers at some point in time, even during our younger years.

Think of the scenarios:

  • You may experience an injury or illness that may inhibit your mobility or functionality.
  • You may not be seriously injured but incorporating Universal Design choices could make your daily tasks easier, and reduce the risk of aggravating injuries or putting undue stress on the body (i.e. lifting, straining, reaching).
  • Even if you don’t require some of the accommodations that universal design offers, it is almost a certainty that people visiting your home would at some point in time, especially if you are potentially in a multi-generational living situation.

In fact, in this Global News piece called ‘Number Of Canadians With At Least One Disability Has Doubled In 10 Years: Data‘ Statistics Canada data shows that 27 percent of people 15 and older – about eight million Canadians – reported having at least one disability in 2022. Click HERE for the 2022 data on disability in Canada.

Developers are being encouraged to adopt universal design features but it isn’t being embraced. However, kudos to The Daniels Corporation who offer a la carte features in their condominium projects including power door operators to access the suite, minimum door clearances, minimum clearances between the kitchen island and kitchen appliances, roll-in tile showers with waterproof bathrooms, grab bars and seats in the showers, under-sink clearance in the bathrooms and low-threshold balcony access. Barrier-free units are now standard at all of their projects, with the possibility of fully accessible suites comprising 15-20% of their projects

More of these kinds of efforts by the shelter industry would be a game-changer because it would further accelerate their creation until they became the standard. However, the likelihood is that those dwellings featuring UD accessibility will be existing homes that have been retrofitted by homeowners for their own needs. It’s unfortunate because if developers adopted the UD philosophy it might incentivize seniors to downsize into these types of units and sell their existing residences in family-friendly neighbourhoods to the next generation.

Until then, having the principles of universal design incorporated, or having the structural elements in place to adapt easily to support accessibility is a sought-after value-add future homebuyers are increasingly prioritizing. Moreso, our evolving design marketplace is starting to offer a lot of stylish, sleek fixtures and finishes that are also supportive of health and safety at home.  This means we are seeing style elevated and creative applications of the design principles that are warm and engaging.

Check out this designer’s example of Universal Design on my site called Canadian Real Estate, Housing & Home –> Universal Design Renovation By Kendall Ansell Interiors In Vancouver, BC

Let’s take a deeper dive into the physical design elements that extend from the principles of UD that help make homes more accessible for all.



* Photo courtesy of Fotor.com, with thanks.


Open-Concept Space Plans

The space plan that best supports universal design is, coincidentally, what is most popular and on-trend in domestic design today: open concept. There are several reasons for this, including fewer (if any) corners to navigate.

Sightlines are extended, making it easier to see take in, and consider both immediate surroundings and the further away at once. Open-concept floor plans tend to make the most of natural light as well, which helps increase visual acuity – and helps give a boost to mental health.

However, UD is more comprehensive than this, and when you start to drill down the details, happily – a lot of the perceived higher-end design choices that support UD are choices that homeowners are currently making in their style aesthetic.

Here’s a past post of mine On The History – And Popularity – Of The Open Concept Space Plan.


* Image courtesy of the EFL, with thanks.


One-Level Living

During most of my 3+ decade career as a realtor in the original City of Toronto, the humble bungalow was dismissed as passé. This housing typology was considered too small, old-fashioned, and often required more maintenance and repair than most consumers in their price range wanted. Younger single and 2-person households desiring a more urban lifestyle opted to buy a condominium in the downtown core while downsizing seniors often purchased ‘houses-in-the-sky’ in established buildings favoured by their social worlds. As a result bungalows – which were part of Toronto’s post-First World War and post-Second World War construction booms – have typically been purchased by builders who enlarge them by going up and out, or who tear them down for new construction. Given bungalows are usually on generous lots in central neighbourhoods transforming them into a new higher and better use met the demand by the professional class for modern executive family-friendly homes. Here’s my still relevant post –> Dear Urbaneer: What Do I Do With My Dated Bungalow? (Plus A Brief History Of This Housing Type) and – for those interested in Urban Planning and Toronto History – I explore how an avenue of bungalows initially built 100 years ago on Holborne Avenue in East York has seen half of them torn down and redeveloped into one or two dwellings since the 1960s (with photos of what replaced them) in –> The History Of East York & Toronto Real Estate – Featuring Holborne Avenue!

In the last two years, the bungalow has become a hot commodity. In MLS Districts E02 & E03 encompassing The Beaches & East York, 8 precedent-setting sales ranging from $1,700,000 to $2,215,000 over the past 2 years demonstrate that this housing type is no longer exclusively the domain of builders.


This bungalow constructed in 1950 in MLS District E02 sold for $2,215,000 in 2023.

I’m prattling on about bungalows because for a dwelling to be most accessible, it should be one level. This means that from the street there should be no obstacles to impede a walker or a wheelchair and on the interior, there should be as few transitions as possible between a change in flooring or grade. In this regard, a condominium with an elevator may be more accessible than a vintage bungalow with a handful of exterior steps.

However, this doesn’t mean one should dismiss a bungalow or even a multi-level dwelling if it can be adapted to meet your needs. For example, the floor closest to being on grade in a dwelling could be renovated to meet the needs of aging in place while other floors accommodate other members of a multi-generational household. A space plan with flex rooms on the main floor could serve as a bedroom for an aging parent if it includes a washroom with an accessible shower. Furthermore, a stair lift or elevator can be installed in many houses with multiple levels. In fact, I have friends who are considering installing a pneumatic vacuum elevator going from their dining room straight up into a bedroom suite on the second level of their gracious Edwardian located in The Annex. When someone asked if a glass elevator tube parked in their dining room might appear a bit odd they laughed, replying that at this point in their lives, they’re focused on function more than appearances.

For those of you with time on your side, I recommend you plan, prepare, and even build some of the infrastructure now (i.e. drawings, approvals, preliminary permits, rough-ins, electrical, and plumbing) so that you’ve got some of the heavy lifting out of the way. Investing your time and energy now to take care of the Future You is time well spent. And it may bring to your attention other considerations worth exploring.





Also fashionable at the moment – running the same flooring throughout the home. Most any hardwood or tile will work under the umbrella of universal design. Incidentally, wood versus tile each has its pros and cons. For example, wood tends to be harder on the joints when standing, but tile is less forgiving when you drop something prone to breakage.

A lot of people these days go with Luxury Vinyl Plank as an option, replicating the look of wood, with a little more forgiveness underfoot and a lot more ease of maintenance. I installed vinyl plank in my mid-century modern dwelling because I value how easy it is to maintain. It’s very mop and go.



Not only is ease of care important under universal design, but minimal transitions are essential too. That is because the more transitions you have, the more tripping hazards you have. Broadloom and area rugs generally are not a great idea. Carpet can snag and pile, creating a tripping hazard. It’s also harder to move walkers and wheelchairs.

Furthermore, look at the transitions between indoors and out. Most doors have thresholds to keep out rainwater. However, some have a rounded edge and are more flush while others are bigger and more square. Choose one that minimizes the risk of tripping and will accommodate a wheelchair easier as it rolls over the threshold.


* Image courtesy of TheseThreeRooms, with thanks.


Luxe Livable Washrooms

I believe one sign that we – as a society – are moving toward a better future is that many accessible, universal design elements are actually on trend and much sought-after right now. For example, washroom fixtures that serve a purpose under universal design are becoming more widely available due to demand, and more functional layouts are increasing in popularity.

An absolute ‘must’ is a curbless shower. The clean lines of a curbless shower make it an appealing décor choice, but also minimizes tripping hazards, and makes it easiest for walkers or wheelchairs to access the shower.

Also in demand? Sleek, stylish grab bars, as well as adjustable hand attachments. For example, you can now find a greater variety of bars and handles – from functional to fancy – in several high-end finishes and profiles.

Speaking of grab bars, the design industry is dialing into universal design, and this is one area where companies have focused on introducing style where things may otherwise have been clinical looking. Koheler and Moen both have sleek, accessible bathroom safety product lines for grab bars that double as toilet paper holders, or towel racks, both handy near the toilet- and increase safety as well.




Functional Cabinetry & Appliances

One of the best ways to add value to your home is to make your cabinetry functional, including pull-outs, inserts, and more. The best way to make your kitchen more accessible? The same thing!

By and large, the ideal kitchen should have adjustable countertops, pull-out drawers, and sufficient space under the sink for wheelchair access. Also helpful are latch or touch hardware on cabinets and single-lever or touch faucets.

The ideal appliances include a front-loading washer and dryer, an induction cooktop with the controls on the front panel, an under-counter fridge and freezer drawers, a beverage fridge, and a single or double-drawer dishwasher.

Having a wall oven at waist height is a smart addition that folks might appreciate when bending over and/or lateral movement is harder. If you’ve ever had a strained back, you know that this sequence of movements is hard while conducting daily tasks!



High Contrast

Vision naturally diminishes with age, and for younger folk who have a sight impairment, having a décor pattern that promotes high contrast can help identify spaces. This helps with safety.

For example, high-contrast colours can help to identify countertop edges, seat edges, as well as steps, and other transitional areas.

The classic black-and-white décor palette that is on trend at the moment is a perfect example of high-contrast and ups the style quotient at home too. Furthermore, high-sheen finishes contrasted with matte finishes can work to this end as well.

Also, keep in mind that large windows with minimal treatments can usher in natural light, which helps with vision too.



* Image courtesy of Leafi, with thanks!


Smart Home Tech

Almost every Buyer considers a property with smart tech a value-added upgrade, but it’s also a fundamental part of universal design as well. Given the purpose of universal design is easy to access, safe to navigate, and spatially inclusive regardless of the individual’s circumstance? to have a space be easiest to use, then smart tech makes a lot of sense.

Being able to control your blinds, thermostat, security system, appliances, and more right from your phone while seated is a lot easier and safer than maneuvering up to a variety of control pads.

Also immensely helpful is voice-activated smart tech.




Build New

In 2018, the City of Toronto passed an as-of-right bylaw allowing Laneway Homes on properties that meet the necessary requirements, and in 2022 the City of Toronto approved the as-of-right Garden Suite on properties meeting the site criteria. For those who own a property where either of these opportunities exists, one could build an accessory dwelling on the existing property for their use while the original dwelling is used to generate income or accommodate other family members.

Furthermore, less than a year ago the City of Toronto approved up to 4 dwellings (+ an accessory dwelling unit if the site requirements can be met) on sites that were previously restricted to single-family residences. This is great news for anyone seeking to Build A New Multi-Generational Family Residence, Co-Housing For 4 Friends, An Income Property, Or A Small Condominium.

For example, in April 2023, we sold a 31×102 foot lot with an obsolete bungalow on it in East York for $1,025,800. If you were four friends looking to construct a small condominium and you had purchased this, your land costs would be about $210,000 each. After navigating the Committee of Adjustment and securing approvals, I believe one could stack four 2-bedroom 800-square-foot modular suites for a cost of around $350,000 each. This means for approximately $600,000 each, you and three friends could age in place in a new 4-unit self-managed condominium in East York.


For those who purchase wisely, the right property can serve you for decades in comfort, safety, and ease of living. This is why applying Universal Design to your Forever Home at your earliest convenience will benefit your needs for today and tomorrow. If you have any questions, please know the Urbaneer Team welcome hearing from you.


*Hero image courtesy of Matt Keane and LinkedIn, with thanks.


Want to have someone on your side?

Since 1989, I’ve steered my career through a real estate market crash and burn; survived a slow painful cross-country recession; completed an M.E.S. graduate degree from York University called ‘Planning Housing Environments’; executed the concept, sales & marketing of multiple new condo and vintage loft conversions; and guided hundreds of clients through the purchase and sale of hundreds of freehold and condominium dwellings across the original City of Toronto. From a gritty port industrial city into a glittering post-industrial global centre, I’ve navigated the ebbs and flows of a property market as a consistent Top Producer. And I remain as passionate about it today as when I started.

Consider contacting me at 416-845-9905 or email me at Steve@urbaneer.com. It would be my pleasure to personally introduce our services.

We’d love to introduce our services to you.

Serving first and second-time Buyers, relocations, renovators, and those building their long-term property portfolios, our mandate is to help clients choose the property that will realize the highest future return on their investment while ensuring the property best serves their practical needs and their dream of “Home” during their ownership.

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We are here to help!



Thanks for reading!


-The Urbaneer Team

Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage – (416) 322-800


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Celebrating Thirty-Four Years As A Top-Producing Toronto Realtor


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