Universal Design: Designing Homes for Everyone

Savvy investors should consider designing and retrofitting homes, apartments, and condos to reflect universal and better living design principles. This will set their projects apart from competitors’ as the country’s population ages and as more learn about the wisdom of such features.


Richard Duncan, Executive Director of the RL Mace Universal Design Institute in Asheville, N.C.

Since universal design (UD) was first mentioned in Design West magazine in 1984, its tenets have become better known. UD, as it’s often called, espouses the belief that good design should be available to meet any challenge. “It wasn’t meant to be just about design narrowly focused on the needs of people with disabilities or to improve living for the elderly and frail,” says Richard Duncan, an early proponent and now Executive Director of the RL Mace Universal Design Institute in Asheville, N.C.


Less than a decade later, federal requirements insisted that some units in apartment buildings constructed with at least four or more units had to include features that would work better for many, especially older residents. Among those features would be accessible public parking spaces, laundry equipment on the ground level so stairs didn’t have to be negotiated, unit interiors with wider doorways and bigger bathrooms for those needing use of a walker or cane.


Within a few more years, when UD had become even better known because of its principles being codified, there was greater understanding that both tangible and intangible products and concepts should be considered. This ranged from the wider doorways and hallways, to entrances without steps, known as no threshold entrances, and more visible and readable graphic designs.


Yet today, many still do not understand or are not aware of the importance of its concepts. They think, “Oh, there’s time…when I get old, a partner or spouse does or an elderly parent does, I’ll retrofit my home or buy one that’s a better fit,” Duncan explains.


Better Living Design

But how many—and some who could benefit are young—could live far easier lives if a light switch was set low enough to reach without trying to stand on a stool if they are short. Lives could be easier if at least one countertop in a kitchen was not at the usual standard height, which sometimes is too high for those short or too low for those who are tall, Duncan says. To help spread the word, his Universal Design Institute coined a new phrase, Better Living Design (BLD), so it could start fresh promoting the importance of design that enables better living. “We wanted to by-pass the UD term, which often is misunderstood and can have a negative ‘disabled’ or ‘old-age only’ connotation. For example, some people associated UD with helpful, though custom items such as traditional grab bars, which could be unattractive and associated with hospitals or nursing homes, even though many grab bars and grips have been redesigned to be more attractive,” he says.


For investors who buy houses to flip or rent, the niche of a UD or BLD home has the upside of a far bigger audience as time goes on and the country’s older population keeps growing. Many in that cohort are reassessing their current living quarters and asking themselves: Can I remain here safely and age in place? Can I accommodate myself, an aging partner or spouse or an elderly parent if need be? Can I be comfortable even before I reach senior status if I have worn knees or an aching back since the stairs in my home keep getting tougher to climb daily?


The good news is that the price differential to make many of the changes is modest, from 0 to 5 percent higher than for traditional homes, Duncan estimates. Obviously, building a home and including such features from the beginning is easier and less costly than retrofitting and remodeling a home. But in either case, having the right designs in place and the right products can become an important marketing and sales tool to differentiate a UD or BLD home from one that’s not.


Eventually, Duncan thinks, there will be a BLD approval process for homes that fulfills a certain number of checks or points like LEED certification and other sustainable or green programs do. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design [LEED] is a rating system devised by the United States Green Building Council [USGBC] to evaluate the environmental performance of a building and encourage market transformation towards sustainable design.) What are some essentials that are most key when building or retrofitting a home, apartment or condo to attract the desired audience of buyers and renters? The following ten represent a very good start, Duncan says.


1. Construct an easy-to-access entry. It doesn’t have to be at the front since so many don’t enter their home that way all the time. It can be through an attached garage. However, there should be some way to avoid climbing entry steps, possibly by grading the site with a gentle slope. In most cases, a ramp is not ideal since it usually looks like it was tacked on and is often unattractive, Duncan says.



2. Consider an open-floor plan. These have become all the rage for all ages and homes, apartments and condos so everyone can be part of the conversation and action and never out of sight. They work especially well for those with various challenges. There is no need to navigate narrow doorways or steps between rooms with one big sweep of space. No need to yell if someone is hard of hearing; no need to worry about not seeing someone as vision deteriorates. In addition, they are great for everyone since they don’t waste space on hallways. Nooks can be created for those needing some privacy, perhaps, for a home office.


3. Widen hallways and doorways. These should measure at least 42 inches rather than the standard 36 inches. While widening them represents an expensive remodel, building a new home or condo or apartment this way from the start is highly cost effective and worthwhile.


4. Feature certain spaces on the main level of multilevel homes. Every home doesn’t have to be a ranch but the kitchen, at least one bedroom or den that can function for sleeping if needed, one bathroom and laundry equipment should be on the main floor.  This avoids the need to use stairs, unless there’s room and funds to include an elevator. Auxiliary bedrooms or rooms such as a home office can be placed on an upper or lower level in a multilevel home.


5. Design a kitchen with all abilities in mind. Not all storage needs to be within arm’s reach but enough should be for contents used frequently. This benefits those who are very short, too. There also should be a place to sit and work for those who can’t stand for long periods or who use a wheelchair. And lighting should reflect enough illumination to perform kitchen tasks such as cutting or reading recipes, especially for those whose eyesight is failing.



6. Outlets and wall switches should be easy to reach for a wide group of users. The maximum height should be 48 inches high, and they should not be placed lower than 36 inches. These days, with so many tech devices in use, include enough outlets in every room.


7. Choose appliances with everyone in mind. Ranges with controls at the front make turning on and off burners easier for those who can’t reach to the back. The same goes with laundry equipment. With any choice, pick equipment that’s easy for all to operate.



8. Understand the importance of a covered porch. A porch at the front, back or side of a house that’s on the same level as the main floor permits outdoor living. Scientific evidence validates the value of sunlight for happier, healthier and even more productive lives, as long as there is some protection from strong UV rays. Social interaction with those passing by also eliminates isolation, a critical component to remain engaged, especially as people age and lose friends and family members. “You don’t want users to have stairs as the only way to access the porch,” Duncan says.


9. Make bedrooms and bathrooms large enough. There are so many variables about how large a bedroom should be—based on the size of furniture and what special equipment is needed such as steps up to a bed. A large enough closet should also be available to store such essentials, as well as clothing. The same rule applies to a bathroom and most 5-foot-by-8-foot bathrooms are too small to fit a walker. Even if you don’t include grab bars, at least build in blocking so the bars can be installed easily and affordably if needed. Other good ideas: walk-in tubs with a seat, which have become better looking and less institutional, and showers without a step.


10. Take into consideration technological advances. The control of many home electronics may soon default completely to our hand-held devices, so the challenge of reaching thermostats, vent controls and many more home functions may decrease totally or in large part, Duncan says.


However, we’re not there yet.


To learn more, especially if you are an investor interested in remodeling multiple homes for UD or BLD….

One of the best books on the subject is old but still available online as a paperback for $24.00 and also available at many public libraries: Universal Design for the Home: Great Looking, Great Living Design for All Ages, Abilities, and Circumstances by Wendy A. Jordan (Rockport Publishers, 2008). Another useful book to read is Rosemarie Rossetti’s Take Back Your Life (Fortuna Press, 2003), which tells how she overcame enormous challenges after a terrible bicycle accident and became paralyzed from the waist down. She and husband Mark Leder built a national demonstration home and garden in Columbus, Ohio, the Universal Design Living Laboratory, www.UDLL.com. It not only serves as their home but also as a living lab to showcase products and services.

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