062: Conversations about Bedrooms

Good Fit Poor Fit
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062: Conversations about Bedrooms


[00:00:00] Sarah: You’re Listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. A podcast that explores the interaction between people, design, and activity. Good Fit Poor Fit is part of The Universal Design Project, a nonprofit organization with a vision for every community across the USA to have a surplus of homes and opportunities for social participation that are universally and financially accessible.

Learn more at universaldesign.org. Welcome to another episode of Good Fit Poor Fit! If you’re a regular listener, you hear a lot about how different features of the home can make it easier for people with disabilities, and well, anyone to use the space easily and independently. In our last episode, you met Rachel Melvin, an OT student who is with us for the fall semester.

Today, we are going to discuss the often overlooked design features in bedrooms and closets in another episode of our Candid Conversation series. Now, we didn’t come up with all of this content on our own. We had the help of our knowledgeable design advisors to share their thoughts on some of these bedroom and closet features, as well as how those features impact their lives.

They shared their thoughts about when things are designed well, or a good fit for them, and when things are not designed well, which would be a poor fit of the environment to meet their needs. The goal for these episodes is to get our listeners to think, wow, I’ve never really considered that these things mattered and they really do. In our organization, we not only consider the design of the space, but to make well-informed design decisions we also need to think about what types of activities people do in their bedrooms so they have enough space to do them. Rachel, from an OT perspective, can you talk about some of the tasks people do every day in their bedrooms to get ready for the day that we need to consider to make sure the designs are functional.

[00:01:53] Rachel: Sure! The most common occupation performed in the bedroom is sleep. Sleep preparation can involve multiple steps depending on the individual, but the basics include moving the covers, getting into the bed, and using a bedside table to perform tasks like putting down items to end the day and turning off the lights. Outside of sleep, people often get dressed in their bedrooms. This could include gathering your clothes from a closet or dresser and putting on your outfit– So top bottoms, undergarments clothes, and maybe some accessories too. These occupations of sleeping and dressing may seem mundane, but they’re so important for day-to-day functioning.

[00:02:34] Sarah: That’s exactly right. So many tasks are included and it’s important to note that these are tasks everyone does disability or not. So when considering anyone who might live in the space, we need to think about all the types of ways people complete tasks. When the environment is a bad fit for people, then they can’t do all of those things by themselves and may need the help of someone else.

I’m going to have to agree with another design advisor here. When she says, “Bad designs take away freedom and independence.” Which is exactly what happens when you feel helpless in being able to get yourself ready and out the door by yourself. So let’s get started in talking about how the design of bedrooms and closets impact people’s ability to do tasks.

I often think bedrooms get left out a lot when design is considered. One of the biggest barriers we see in homes typically is there isn’t an option for a bedroom on the main floor. How can you get a good night’s sleep if you can’t even reach the bed? Larissa is an OT and she speaks to this a bit and says that many people that she’s worked with have stairs to get to bedrooms, especially if they live in a townhouse or apartment. Because of this, her patients come home from the hospital after an illness or injury and end up having to camp out in the downstairs living room or dining room, because the only bedrooms are accessed by stairs and it’s not possible or safe for them to go up and down the stairs. This temporary space, usually on a couch or maybe a hospital bed doesn’t provide much privacy and impedes on the space of other family activities.

Rachel, have you had experience with this type of arrangement? 

[00:04:12] Rachel: I have actually. From one time or another, I remember my childhood home feeling disrupted by the rearrangement of living spaces. The impact on me may not have been huge, but I imagine for my affected family members, living in a temporary space was less than ideal and amplified an already vulnerable situation.

My childhood home is a two-story house built in the 1930s. And all of the bedrooms are on the second floor. This arrangement has sometimes forced family members and visiting friends to remain on the first floor of the home because of their ability level. A home is supposed to be a place of gathering and it doesn’t feel cohesive when not everyone can access all areas of the house.

[00:04:54] Sarah: Those are really good points, and wow, the 1930s! That’s important to note that homes have really changed over the decades in style and design, but people in our communities are still living in these older homes that weren’t really considered for ease and use with change in function. So compromises must occur like you shared or renovations are needed.

Another scenario I see is there’s actually a bedroom and bathroom on the main floor for someone to use, but the design and functionality of using that bedroom and closet aren’t great. Our design advisors agreed and shared some frustrating situations they’ve experienced that were a poor fit in regard to the typical design and layout of bedrooms and closets.

First, let’s discuss the room in general and its arrangement. 

Felice Eckhouse is one of our design advisors, an occupational therapist, and the owner of a business called Elderspaces. She often consults with individuals who need changes done to their home to make it more functional, whether big or small, she shares a few scenarios of what she sees in a typical bedroom space.

[00:05:59] Felice: This is a great question about the bedrooms because what we’ve seen are what currently exists. And certainly there are loads of problems. Some of them we try to modify, but mostly that means you have to enlarge the doorways, there’s no room for the bed that exists there, and definitely the closets are not functional.

We were called in for a catastrophic accident and their home was completely too small. The bedroom was very small to begin with; all the rooms were small. The doorway was terrible to get in. No way this could be retrofit or redone. He had to redo the whole bedroom. 

[00:06:38] Sarah: Larissa and another OT who are both design advisors agree that what’s typically out there isn’t really working for people. Larissa makes a good point that many of the homes she sees popping up in different locations, have smaller bedrooms like townhouses and apartments, and they don’t really lend themselves to a lot of floor space. Another design advisor continues…

[00:06:58] Anonymous DA: Sometimes rooms are so small that with furniture in it. Kind of trying to navigate that wheelchair or that walker is really challenging.

[00:07:10] Sarah: Design advisor and OT Chau adds that when there are parts of the wall that jut out, it affects how you can place furniture. And it actually ruins the flow of the room. So it’s pretty apparent that bedrooms in homes need to be bigger and designers need to consider the location, sizes of the beds, and types of furniture that could go into this space, so people could still move around in them. In addition, people that use mobility devices need room to turn around in their wheelchairs and walkers, without running over things, bumping into them, getting trapped in a corner by furniture, or dragging unorganized things across the floor. 

So let’s dig another level deeper here and talk about why beds, bed types, and their placement are so important. Rachel, can you share a little bit more about what our design advisors said about beds? 

[00:07:58] Rachel: Yeah. Kira and another design advisor both mentioned that beds are often too high and make transfers difficult. However, lowering the bed doesn’t seem to be a good fit because Larissa brings up a good point that if the bed is too low, it can be hard to get up from. Larissa continues to say that adaptive equipment then has to be used to help with sitting to standing. It sounds like a Goldilocks and the Three Bears situation where the bed is too low or too high, and we’re looking for our just-right bed that will be an optimal, good fit for all people. 

A few of our design advisors also mentioned beds in hotel rooms that claim to be ADA compliant. Design advisor, Viola Dwyer mentions that she has seen so many examples of poorly fit hotel rooms. She says, “There’s very little room to get around the desks that are typically placed in front of the bed.” Viola continues to say that the rooms feel very cramped and that having enough space on the sides of the beds is really important for someone who is a wheelchair user or someone who relies on a mechanical lift to help them get in and out of the bed.

Another design advisor agrees with Viola’s mention of furniture arrangement saying that they couldn’t get to either side of the bed because of bulky furniture and ultimately had to get a room change. 

[00:09:14] Sarah: Yeah, the height of the bed and the room around the bed seem to be causing a lot of difficulty. We’ve been to hotels before where Scott had to transfer onto the bottom of the bed, and I had to help him scoot up the bed because his chair wouldn’t fit between the bed and the wall. It’s also not uncommon for us to ask maintenance, to take the bed off the frame because it was too high. In a lot of designs we work on as an organization, we try to design the space so that a king-size bed could fit into the room in addition to the furniture. It’s kind of like playing Tetris to make sure there’s room for the furniture and the floorspace. 

I know in our current apartment, we struggled where to put our queen-size bed, to give Scott enough room to reach all the areas, the room he needed to, and make sure my side wasn’t squished up against the wall. This goes to show you that configuration and space is important for anyone to be able to comfortably and safely use the bedroom.

Next onto storage. Our design advisors also had a lot to say about the barriers to keeping things organized in dressers and closets. In addition to dressers causing issues with floor space, one design advisor, Larissa, notes that some of the dresser storage can be too low. And if people don’t have the ability to squat or bend over, it’s pretty difficult to get items out of the drawers and close them. 

So what’s our other option? Closets. Depending on the bedroom and the age of the house. There may not even be a closet. So people have to add more furniture into an already small room.

Of course, our design advisors had lots to say about closets and how they’re designed. First, to even access your closet, you have to get through the doorway. Barry Long uses a wheelchair and is a realtor. So he sees his fair share of closets. He says that many closets aren’t usable in the first place because the door is too narrow for him to get close enough to get to the items inside. Then, if the closet is deep, he can’t reach the items inside. Several other design advisors mentioned that the actual swing of the door is a barrier and they end up removing the door so they don’t have to deal with it being in the way. It is also very inconvenient in the design, when the door to the room opens up and covers up the door to the closet causing even more difficulty in moving through the room and trying to access the storage behind those two doors. In this situation, people are constantly dealing with multiple swinging doors just to grab a pair of pants or a towel. 

These issues are coming to light because we have to understand how people use the room to know how to design it. Meaghan Walls has a good idea in how to address this. 

[00:11:51] Meaghan: I also think that thinking through movement in the room. So where doors are placed. And so things are going to be open, whether it’s doorways or closet doors, or bathroom doors to make sure there’s still enough room to navigate if doors are open.

[00:12:06] Sarah: Meaghan is a rehab engineer and she, and many of our other design advisors who are OTs are thinking through how people who don’t have perfect function could struggle with the process of storing and getting clothes to move them to a location, to put them on. Our organization really feels like the analysis of activities is important to make it easier for people to use their spaces.

Sally Kiker was one of our previous OT students and she shared about her personal closet situation. Her quote, “My closet in my old DC apartment is pretty much the definition of inaccessible. It’s fairly narrow, 32 inches wide, very deep, and also very tall. There is no light, no outlet in the space, and the ceiling is a bit too tall for one of those battery-operated, stick-on lights. This makes it hard to see my clothes in the early morning when I’m getting ready for work.” End quote. 

I love how this up-and-coming OT, Sally, is already thinking about function and even how her closet isn’t functional for her. Proof, that universal design is not just for people with impairments.

Jedida Milton has some really good points about the orientation of the bedroom in relation to the closets within the home. 

[00:13:20] Jedida: Often I have noticed the bedroom is connected to the master bath, which has access to the closet. So in order to access the closet, you need to go through the master bath or it’s somewhere around that area. Also increases the risk of falls. If there is water nearby or just in general, the whole long way that you have to go just to reach the closet.

If the closet was just in a different part of the bedroom, or at least they had an option. So you don’t have to walk up all the way across the master bathroom. 

[00:13:54] Sarah: So that’s just accessing the closet. What about reaching and organizing what’s inside? Many design advisors feel like the typical setup of one high shelf and a rod is not helpful.

Kira says that the shelves are just too high and Ruchika says that the wire shelving makes it impossible to organize clothes and causes more clutter because people can’t reach everything. And it all just ends up on the floor, making a mess, causing a trip hazard. I can attest to that at five foot, three inches, if I round up, I often try and throw my sweatshirts and sweaters up onto that top shelf because I can’t reach them. And then they end up toppling down in a big mess. 

Ellen Farber is an interior designer that works with those who are aging, and she says that closets are notoriously cluttered and it’s really hard to find anything. 

Just like Sally said they are often not well lit and require a lot of bending or reaching to get items. She said a good solution is to focus on placing heavily used items within arm’s reach, like you would in the kitchen, this would reduce the amount of reaching and mean less falls. Plus, Meaghan adds that if we have really good storage options in the closet, we help remove other possible clutter from the bedroom.

[00:15:10] Rachel: I think because the closet’s primary purpose is to store items, it often gets brushed over with little to no attention for functionality. We tend to collect a lot of things in our lifetime and we need an adequate place to store them. However, after hearing from our design advisors, our closets don’t seem to serve us well.

I know every closet I’ve had was a dark and tight space with hard-to-reach shelving. And I wish that I could easily access my items. I remember growing up that my sister had a slightly bigger closet in her bedroom. And one feature that I thought was unique was that she had a window in her closet.

That brings me to our next point: Windows, lighting, and temperature control. Many of our design advisors mentioned the benefits of windows. Meaghan Walls had this to say…

[00:15:58] Meaghan: I think lighting placement of windows and type of windows also impacts how the room can function. Especially if you need to move around when it’s darker, you know, early morning, late at night, and not wake someone up. So I think those things can all have functional impact. 

[00:16:18] Rachel: And I agree! Windows can have multiple benefits, including light. Design advisor Ellen Farber says that she struggles with inadequate light in her client’s bedrooms. And if they have light, it’s never easy to reach or it’s hard to manipulate and actually turn on and off. During the day, windows can bring in natural light and can eliminate some of the headaches of manipulating light fixtures. They can also bring in other natural components, like fresh air and a view of the outside, all of which have a positive impact on one’s mental health.

However, design advisor Barry Long shared that he has found that being able to get to and open windows is an issue often found in bedrooms. So windows aren’t always the simple solution you would like. They also tend to make a space really warm or cool depending on the weather outside. That’s why the temperature controls in our homes play an important role in keeping us regulated. 

[00:17:14] Sarah: Good points, Rachel and design advisors. Sometimes we don’t really have an option when cramming things into our bedrooms, but to put them in front of windows and temperature controls. If we start to get fancy, it’s possible to purchase devices that make blinds and temperature controls, part of your smart home options to control them with your phone. But honestly, sometimes it’s just easier if you can reach the control with your hand and not rely on a device, especially to open up a window for some fresh air. 

Next, I want to touch on flooring in the bedroom, which was a hot topic for our design advisors. We will discuss flooring for the entire home in more detail in an upcoming episode, so be on the lookout for that. 

But specifically for the bedroom, Barry mentioned, “It’s frustrating when there’s a transitional lip between the flooring from the hallway to the bedroom and then into the bathroom.” If you’re not sure what this means, it’s when the flooring is different heights and there’s basically a threshold, a little lip or a step to merge the two flooring types together. So say from the tile in the bathroom to the carpet in the bedroom.

Carpet, in general, was a complaint too. Heavy pile carpet or carpet that has thick padding underneath is like rolling through sand or mud to people who use mobility devices. Also, throw rugs can be a trip hazard for people and they can easily get wadded up and caught under wheelchairs and walkers when people are moving and turning. Our team member and design advisor, Viola agrees.

[00:18:41] Viola: What I notice also in houses and apartments is most have carpeting, wall-to-wall, in the bedroom, which is very impractical for many folks. It would be ideal, and this is our hope, to have area rugs so that you still have the best of both worlds where you can have that cushioning under the foot, if you’re walking and you still have the efficiency and the ease of cleaning of a vinyl flooring or a non-carpet flooring. That’s a big deal. 

[00:19:12] Rachel: That brings up a really good point of additional opportunities brought up to keep your home clean. In my apartment now, I have carpet in every area except for the bathroom and a small cutout for the kitchen. Carpet, in general, takes more effort to clean and can be a pain compared to a smoother surface like hardwood flooring, laminate, or tile.

If someone is tracking in dirt on their wheels or shoes, it would be much easier to clean. If it wasn’t stuck in between carpet fibers. Just another thing to consider! After all, home management is considered an important IADL in the Occupational Therapy Practice Framework. But for now, we’re going to put a pause on flooring because we have more thoughts included in another Good Fit Poor Fit episode.

So let’s switch gears and share what our design advisors said about when bedrooms are designed well or a good fit and how it improves their lives or the lives of those they care for. 

Sarah, can you start us off with some of the overall positive comments that were shared? 

[00:20:13] Sarah: Sure. Our design advisors shared in regard to the bedroom being a good fit– That it made them feel safe, made things convenient, reduced risks of falls, that the room was intuitive, made life easier, fostered a quality night’s rest, helped them keep things organized, and provided independence when things were simple and within reach. Barry Long added, “When I don’t have to think about moving from room to room, it makes a huge, positive impact on my life.”

Meaghan Walls shares that it’s not just a benefit for people who may have some sort of disability. An easy-to-use space is helpful for everyone. 

[00:20:49] Meaghan: So I think for an individual, like if it were myself, it would be having increased independence and a sense of safety and security. And if it were my loved one or loved ones, it would be , having the sense of mind that they were safe and I didn’t have to worry about them as much.

[00:21:10] Sarah: Sally Kiker goes a little deeper in exactly how these positive comments impact daily tasks. She says, “When bedrooms are designed well, morning and nighttime routines become easier. Selecting clothes that can be seen and reached easily makes getting dressed for the day simpler and less time-consuming.” And for her personally, “less anxiety-provoking. Getting in and out of bed as well as making the bed depends on the height of the bed and the position of the bed in the room.” These are definitely considerations for completing daily tasks easily. 

So how does the environment make these tasks easier? We’ve talked a lot about barriers, but now our design advisors are going to give you some specific tips for how to make the space super functional. They talk a lot about the layout of the room and make sure that the doors are at least 36 inches to get inside. That also needs to be carried over into the flow of the room. Kira, who is an OT, says there needs to be a lot of space around both sides of the bed and the foot of the bed with a five-foot turning radius. Best practices for the closet: Make sure it’s close by with easy to reach shelving with cubbies baskets, organizers, and rods with high and low options for hanging things are also great ideas. The door opening has to be big enough for someone to use a mobility device to get inside, or at least get themselves to the door, to reach into a shallow closet. Larissa adds that she advises people to put things in locations that aren’t too high or too low, especially if they’re used a lot. 

Another design advisor mentions that it’s also important to consider how far the toilet is from the bed so there was easy access for late night bathroom trips and adding in a chair or a bench in the bedroom can give people a place to sit down to change or put on their shoes.

Having things close together without barriers makes a big difference. Plus lighting and outlets are a big deal. Rachel, can you share some helpful tips about those? 

[00:23:06] Rachel: Yeah! Lighting illuminates our space so we can safely perform our occupations. So the placement of lighting plays a key role. I think it’s important to note where and how these lights get turned on. So not only the placement of the light fixture is important, but the placement of the light switch is as well. An additional feature would be equipping your home to be quote-unquote smart. Products like smart plugs and smart speakers, such as an Alexa and a Google Home can make the process of turning on or off your lights really easy. The placement of outlets is also really important. We have to think where in our bedrooms do we utilize an outlet– Near the bed outlets for lamps and charging electronics and addition to other lighting fixtures, or maybe even a TV. 

I want to leave off with another quote from our design advisor, Viola, you can hear in her voice how important these details are to her. 

[00:24:04] Viola: When bedrooms are designed well, you can fully use them so you can get in and out of the bed without a lot of strain or effort, you can access the things that you need in the bedroom, easily. So your clothing is organized in a way for easy access. If people are making your bed and taking it down at night, you need space to place those pillows and decorative items that you use to make your bed. I think a well-designed room considers that you know, the making of a bed and the unmaking of a bed. A well-designed room also allows for additional furniture. A lot of these spaces don’t even have enough room to include a bureau. Or another chair by a window, or a bench to place the excess bedding or whatever storage items you want to place.

So I think extra space is also a benefit for a well-designed bedroom. 

[00:25:12] Sarah: Well said, everyone! I went to thank our design advisors for contributing to this episode and giving our listeners some additional things to consider when thinking about the bedroom and how we store all of our things. I hope you all are doing well, and we look forward to sharing more with you again very soon. Have a good one!

Thanks for listening to Good Fit Poor Fit. I’m your host Sarah Pruett, Program Director and Occupational Therapist at The Universal Design Project. Learn more about our work at universaldesign.org, and find more episodes and links to subscribe at goodfitpoorfit.com If you have questions or topics you’d like to discuss, email us at [email protected].

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