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Transgenerational Design

Ami Noss
By Ami NossAugust 27, 2015

The brainchild of industrial design professor James J. Pirkl and occupational therapist Anna L. Babic, “transgenerational design” elevates basic “accessibility” into well-designed homes and appliances that serve a wide range of users with grace and style.

Transgenerational Design

At first glance, the bathroom vanity designed by James J. Pirkl doesn’t draw particular attention to itself as anything other a beautiful custom built-in, but on further inspection, several features reveal an exceptionally thoughtful approach to its construction. Tucked into a corner, the vanity makes maximum use of space, freeing up plenty of room for those who might be walker- or wheelchair-bound to navigate the room.


An alcove located directly beneath the sink means that it can be easily accessed from a seated position, and the solid-surface countertop’s “finger-grip lip” makes rolling a wheelchair closer quick and intuitive. The sink’s faucet is controlled by a single, lever-style handle, and the drawers and cabinets that flank the sink alcove feature large “D”-shaped pulls and handles for easy gripping.

Aging in Place

The vanity described above is an example of “transgenerational design,” an approach developed in the 1980s by Pirkl, an industrial design professor at Syracuse University, and his partner, gerontologist Anna L. Babic.

One of many teams whose work was federally funded on the heels of the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, Pirkl and Babic’s philosophy is that everyday products and environments should be tailored to the broadest possible spectrum of users. They believe that by focusing on those at the ends of the spectrum (the young, the old, the disabled and the sick or injured), those in the middle are better served as well.

Beyond Accessibility

Like universal design,transgenerational design is intended to be sympathetic and enabling rather than hostile and disabling, but Pirkl describes transgenerational design as going a step further than providing mere “accessibility.” It’s a holistic approach that focuses on the way humans actually use things, rather than on making code-compliant “adaptations.” It emphasizes beautiful, “soul-satisfying” elements and actively avoids the sterile and clinical.

As stated by Transgenerational.org, the goals of transgenerational design are safety, comfort, ease of use, ideal ergonomics, user satisfaction and suitability for a wide range of users. Home design that conforms to these guidelines provides seniors with the ability to remain as independent as possible for as long as possible, while enabling them to be fully integrated into “normal” household life.

10 Examples of Transgenerational Design

Level entries, main-floor master suites, and wide halls and doorways are just the beginning of the features that can make a house livable for many generations. Here are some clever concepts that exemplify transgenerational design:

  1. Keyless-entry locks: Not only are these easier to manage than keyed locks, they tend to be more secure, given that there are no keys to be lost or stolen. Mechanical or electronic PIN locks, fob-controlled locks, and fingerprint-controlled locks are relatively inexpensive, widely available options.
  2. Pocket doors: Doors can be difficult to maneuver, and can impede access to items within their radius when open. Doors that slide open and closed and “disappear” in either position free up a lot of space.
  3. Multilevel counters and work surfaces:Pirkl’s kitchen designs feature pullout counter-tops at multiple levels, making it possible to accommodate people of different heights, as well as those who need to work from a seated position.
  4. Pullout storage: Everyone benefits from the ability to pull stored items closer without unnecessary bending, reaching or general straining. Kitchen drawers or cabinets with shallow interior drawers, as well as pullout pantry shelving units and garbage-sorting stations ease the burden of meal prep.
  5. Windows instead of upper cabinets: Even able-bodied adults of average height tend to have trouble reaching farther than the second shelf of most upper cabinets. User-friendly houses feature abundant lower-level storage, which in turn frees up space for more windows, exposing work areas to soothing, natural light.
  6. Raised, front-operated, swing-door appliances: Dishwashers, ovens and other appliances should be mounted 10 to 15 inches above the floor. Controls should be reachable from the seated position, and swing doors, rather than drop-front doors, can make for easier access.
  7. Side-mounted, single-handle faucets: Ease of plumbing has dictated traditional faucet placement, but with a little extra invent, plumbing can be installed to allow for more accessible faucet placement.
  8. Antimicrobial, self-cleaning countertops, tubs and shower stalls: Home maintenance is no one’s favorite way to spend time, but for seniors, household upkeep can become overwhelming, if not impossible. Ground-breaking usage of copper and copper oxides has made self-sanitizing hard surfaces an increasingly popular option.
  9. Higher electrical outlets and lower light switches: Both of these items should be easily accessible from a seated position.
  10. Remote controlled thermostats and window blinds: Switch-operated or remote controlled window coverings eliminate the need to reach high windows, and remote controlled thermostats make climate control easier to manage.

What would you add to the list? What makes your current home easy or difficult to live in? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

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Ami Noss
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Ami Noss
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