Columbus: 614-545-6888

Free Consultation
Columbus: 614-545-6888

8 Tips for a Universal Design Closet – Part 1 of a 3 part series

Everyone knows what a closet is, but does anyone know what a universal design closet is? Well one way to find out is to take a trip to Columbus Ohio and visit the Universal Design Living Laboratory. You may be asking, “Mike – why would I want to go, or read about, a laboratory (which sounds like a place with a bunch of crazy scientists in white lab coats) and learn about something (universal design closets) I don’t really know what it is? Here’s 3 reasons why.

  • Reason 1 – You have aging parents who would like to stay in their home as long as possible and they are still climbing up on chairs and ladders to get things down from their cramped and cluttered closets. This situation is an accident waiting to happen.
  • Reason 2 – You’re not getting any younger (that’s a bummer) and your various body parts are squawking at you on a continuous basis. A home (and closet) which is easier to find things and not have to bend over so much would be good.
  • Reason 3 – A wheelchair or a walker may be in your (or a family member’s) future and you’re unsure what to do to be able to reach all the items in your closet.

Before we start digging into the 8 tips for a universal design closet I’d like to step back and lay the “groundwork” on what universal design is, explain more about the Universal Design Living Laboratory (UDLL) in Columbus Ohio and talk a bit about the combined closet/laundry room being profiled in this article.

What is universal design?

 OK – this is not a dictionary definition for universal design as it relates to homes but to me it’s about designing spaces which can be used by anyone from grandparents to grandkids.

Universal #design is creating spaces which can be used by everyone from grandparents to grand kids. Click To TweetThe spirit of universal design is to make spaces which can work for your entire family or friends – whether they are a short person who uses a wheelchair, (like Rosemarie Rossetti) or her husband Mark Leder a tall 6’4” guy. Rosemarie and Mark live in, and are the principle spokespeople for, the UDLL home featured here.

What is the Universal Design Living Laboratory (UDLL)?

There are no serious looking guys in white lab coats with messed up hair in this laboratory. This “laboratory” is both the residence for Rosemarie and Mark and also a place to help people design homes which can be used or enjoyed by everyone. You see Rosemarie suffered a serious accident 18 years ago when a 3 ton tree fell on her while riding a bike through a trail in Granville (a suburb of Columbus) on a beautiful day. This event now requires her to get around with the use of a wheelchair. Rosemarie and Mark (who I’m fortunate to claim as good friends) are not only gracious people – but they have made it part of their mission to teach people about universal design and making homes which work….for everyone. They coordinated the construction of this unique home and provide tours and training to expand people’s knowledge about universal design and sustainable homes.

UDLL Universal Design Living Laboratory in Columbus Ohio with a Custom Universal Design Closet and Laundry Room

Universal Design Living Laboratory

The combined walk in closet/laundry room (AKA “The Wardrobe”)

What’s unique and beneficial about this room is that it’s a “two for one” space – a walk in closet and laundry room combined which Rosemarie and Mark call “The Wardrobe.” Since there is so much to talk about with the closet and laundry areas of the space this article will focus on the closet and in part 2 of the series we’ll explore the laundry room.

Combined universal design roll in closet and laundry room in Columbus home owners Rosemarie Rossetti and Mark Leder

Combined walk in closet and laundry in a 14′ x 20′ room

If you asked most people in one word to describe their closet’s the word they would use is……. a mess! Many of the 8 tips I’ll discuss will help you to rid yourself of this mess and also make the space easier to see your clothes and shoes. In short it will make your closet easier to use – whether you need a universal design closet or not. So without further ado let’s get into the 8 tips.

Tip #1 – Get the closet system off the floor  

There are 2 basic mounting approaches for a custom walk in closet. They can be floor mounted or wall mounted. While the floor mounted units have a finished “cabinetry” look, for a universal design the wall mounted approach (which is also less expensive) will be best. The reason wall mounted works is it allows Rosemarie to get right up to her hanging clothes. Another advantage of wall mounted units is they are easier to clean or sweep the floor.

Universal and accessible walk in and roll in closets are wall mounted to make it easy to roll under

Tip #2 – Hooks and pulls can be your friend in a universal closet design  

While I’m sure Rosemarie would like to be able to reach Mark’s top shelves and rods while standing that’s not physically possible. This would have been a deterrent years ago but it no longer has to be. With the assistance of a shepherds hook she can pull down a hanging garment or put away one of Mark’s shirts.

A sheperds hook can help in a universal roll in closet design to reach things

In addition to the sheperds hook a new product from Hafele is a pull down closet rod – so the entire rod can come to you – very cool!

A pull down closet rod is perfect for a universal custom closet design

Tip #3 – Think in “36’s” – space to roll around the closet

Having an island in the middle of a walk in closet is a useful to store supplies, socks, shirts etc. While a standard 24” space between the cabinet island and the clothes is usually sufficient, when someone needs the assistance of a wheelchair it is best to design 36” of space. This closet island by Kraftmaid Cabinetry provides room to open drawers and to take a 360 degree spin around the closet/laundry room.

Allow 36 inches of space for an island in a custom roll around closet

Tip #4 – Save enough space for those “big dawgs” – your shoes  

Custom closet design should be just that – it should be customized for the people in your home. While off the shelf products may be cheaper they are not designed with you (or your husband in mind). Mark is a tall guy with size 14 shoes. In designing this space ClosetMaid (the manufacturer of this closet system) made sure the shoe shelves were 14” deep for Mark’s big dawgs. With 12” deep shelving they would have been hanging over the edge.

Make sure closet depth are deep to handle shoe storage - universal design closet in Columbus Ohio

Tip #5 – Strategic organizational strategies with a Professional Organizer

The seasons change and so should the clothes in your closet. While it would be nice not to have to move clothes out on a seasonal basis for most of us if we don’t do this we have wrinkled clothes jammed in our closet (yes – I will fess up right now my closet resembles this remark).

With the strategic decluttering help of Cathy Von Volkenburg of Accent on Organizing in Columbus Rosemarie and Mark switch their wardrobes out 2 times per year (summer/spring and fall/winter).

Strategic decluttering help from a #closet #organizer will improve function and style. Click To TweetCathy has set them up with clear plastic bins and hanging storage systems rack. There are bins for donation items, bins for those things which don’t quite fit now (we can be hopeful they will fit later) and hanging storage. 

In addition as Cathy said to me, “I recommended some different ways for Rosemarie and Mark to use the closet to improve function and style. We moved Mark’s clothing higher and organized everything by categories with short sleeves and long sleeves in their respective areas. Rosemarie’s shoes were moved up (and off the floor) so she wouldn’t have to bend over in her chair. I also got a bunch of hangers from IKEA to create a more organized consistent look.”  After making these changes Rosemarie and Mark can see and reach their clothes and shoes without a problem which makes the daily closet routine simple and efficient.

Tip #6 – “You look marvelous darling” -get the closet lighting right 

If you’re like me (just a bit on the color-blind side) telling your blacks from blues can be a pain in the butt. Lighting is an under-analyzed component of a custom closet – but it can make a difference in distinguishing colors, seeing how you look before you heading to work and creating an open feeling for what is normally a closed in clausterphobic area of a home. As Rosemarie told me, “Mark was insistent on getting the lighting right with both natural and artificial lighting.” (I joked with Rosemarie that may be because Mark recently had a paid gig as a fashion model and maybe he’s checking himself out a bit much!).

In order to maintain the privacy in the closet of this ranch home – yet maximize natural light – three transom windows and an operable Velux skylight (a neat feature when you want to air dry a sweater) were used.

Natural lighting using transom windows and an operable skylight in a universal design custom closet

For the artificial lighting 11 LED lights were installed. With all of this lighting we’re now assured Rosemarie can tell Mark, “You look marvelous darling!” using the comedic voice of Billy Crystal.

Tip #7 – Measure twice, design once

Designing a closet can be like a puzzle – trying to figure out where all the pieces go. To evaluate the layout of a closet, a closet designer needs to look at how many gowns a woman has (long hanging sections), how long the men’s shirts and women’s blouses are (medium and short hanging sections) and practical factors like how you fold your pants (you’ll see Rosemarie folds her pants over a hanger while Mark likes to clip his pants in a long hanging fashion).

Desiging the length of hanging closet rods in a custom universal design closet in columbus ohio

After the existing inventory of clothing (and ties and belts etc.) are thought through a designer is then in a position to think through the best hanger configurations and design accordingly. Given Mark’s height, and how he likes to hang his pants, his rod sections are set to be longer than Rosemarie’s.

Tip #8 – A wise man (or woman) knows what they don’t know – getting help from the experts 

When Rosemarie and Mark began this project 12 years ago they had a lot to learn more about universal design and closets (as well as scores of other products). In order to develop a stylish and well-functioning universal design closet they called on national expert Mary Jo Peterson and their local architect Patrick Manley to properly plan the space.  Don’t be afraid to get the qualified help of an experienced closet designer – they can help you with this space planning and an efficient and elegant design.


Designing a closet which can effectively be used by everyone can be a liberating experience for someone who is mobility challenged. What is nice to know is a universal design does not have to be more expensive – but it does have to be more thoughtfully designed.

If you have questions, comments or need help with a closet design, universal design or about the UDLL home call the numbers below or add your thoughts to this post.


For help with a Columbus closet design project call Innovate Home Org in Columbus at 614-545-6888 or in Cleveland call 216-658-1290. For information about the Universal Design Living Laboratory call Rosemarie or Mark at 614-471-6100.

Follow the author @Mike_Foti or our companies’ @InnovateBuild and @InnovateHomeOrg on Twitter.

Mike Foti

Mike Foti is the President of Innovate Home Org, a division of Innovate Building Solutions. You can learn more about Mike here.

Mike Foti

Mike Foti is the President of Innovate Home Org, a division of Innovate Building Solutions. You can learn more about Mike here.

Leave a comment