The Case for Interchangeable and Adaptable Design Standards in Housing

Published April 1, 2022

While accessibility design standards exist to provide the minimum level of accessibility in housing, some question why we are not building new homes to be more adaptable and universally designed in the first place.

Homeowners rarely plan for disability if they have never experienced it, but they certainly should − a broken leg or arm, disease, or a serious infection could leave anyone either temporarily or permanently disabled. Not to mention the effects of aging − after all, disability is the only protected class anyone can become a part of − if we live long enough.

So why don't we do a better job preparing for this challenge? We review the potential for a design standard that incorporates interchangeability and adaptability as a core principle. 

Interchangeable and adaptable

Implemented in the early design stage and manifested during construction, adaptable features such as movable cabinets and doorways could be converted to meet the needs of the current owner over the course of their lives. Users with mobility equipment could benefit from having the ability to modify the access points of their homes at a low cost − imagine having the ability to remove and replace a door without major construction costs.

In Europe it is common in some countries that tenants bring their own cabinets and sinks − how many more homes would be available and accessible for all if non-accessible housing was not an issue in the first place? 

An adaptable and universal cabinet design provision in the standards could feature interchangeability to and from existing installations, which would improve accessibility for persons with disabilities by allowing different sized drawers, doors, openings, and spacers that can easily be removed or installed later to accommodate mobility equipment.

Light switches set on the wall at a lower level for users of mobility equipment could be great for small children to reach − which could also save lives in the event of a fire, and it would be hard to argue the feature would be an inconvenience to others − an interchangeable and adaptable design would ensure those functional installations could easily be moved anyway. 

How many more homes would be available if doorways could easily be adjusted or bathroom parts replaced? What if sink cabinets were designed to be accessible for mobility equipment in the first place - and if they weren't, how convenient would it be if they were designed to be removed and replaced in an hour?

How adaptable standards improve independent living

The lack of accessible and affordable housing throughout the country also creates barriers to other aspects of independent living. In many cases, people elect to live where they can participate in services and programs that are relevant to them. But what if they can't? 

In many cities and counties, transportation challenges prevent people with disabilities from obtaining gainful employment, accessing healthcare, or attending school. When accessible and affordable housing is not available in areas where those services are available, the barriers pile on. 


People with disabilities should have access to the basic necessities required to live their lives independently, and it starts with affordable and accessible housing. Creating interchangeable and adaptable design standards may provide relief not just for people with disabilities looking for housing, but also for housing providers. To learn more about existing accessible design standards, visit the United States Access Board


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