Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).
Home Design for Everyone
Universal design elements, such as wider doorways, step-free entrances, and decorative grab bars, are a draw for buyers both young and old.
August 1, 2007
Curb appeal may get buyers in the door, but a home's interior design and layout determine how they'll enjoy the property after they move in. If the buyers — or their close friends or family — have physical disabilities, then special accommodations should be made so they can easily use the home and its amenities.
Some home owners make handicap-friendly modifications after they move in, but more homes are built from the start for owners who plan for the day when they may have bad knees, poor eyesight, or need to use a walker.
This fore-sighted planning goes by the name of universal design. It's incorrect to think that only baby boomers and seniors are thinking that the idea is smart. While baby boomers certainly are a target market, accidents and physical disabilities can happen at any age, and many younger buyers see the advantage of building a home where they can stay for the long term.
In fact, a whopping 82 percent of U.S. home owners say they want to remain in their homes as they age, even if they require assistance and care, according to a survey by the American Society of Interior Designers.
By expanding your knowledge of universal design, you'll put yourself ahead of your competition, says Kathy Sperl-Bell, CRS®, SRES®, a salesperson with RE/MAX Realty Group in Lewes, Del., who has built her business around the boomer niche.
The Basics of Universal Design
The concept of accessible design dates back to World War II, when injured veterans modified their homes to adapt to disabilities, says Richard Duncan, director of Universal Design Training at The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C.
Today the focus is much broader. Its goal is to make places and things easy to use for the widest possible range of people. "Universal design emphasizes the importance of investing in smart designs for a diversity of ability," says Valerie Fletcher, executive director for Adaptive Environments, a Boston organization that promotes design that works for everyone, from a busy mom with her arms full of groceries to an elderly man who's recovering from hip surgery.
Universal design features fall within one of these seven guiding principles, according to the Center for Universal Design:
- Equitable use. The design doesn't disadvantage any user. Example: Front-mounted controls on a range allow someone in a wheelchair to reach them.
- Flexible use.The design accommodates a range of abilities and preferences. Example: Levers, rather than knobs, make doors and drawers easier to open.
- Simple, intuitive use. The design is easy to understand. Example: A universally designed thermostat incorporates simple icons, numbers in a large font, and contrasting colors to indicate cold or warmth.
- Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information. Example: A doorbell with a light flashes to alert a home owner with diminished hearing.
- Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and adverse consequences of unintended actions. Example: A step-free entry into a house or curb-free shower stall helps owners avoid tripping. No-slip tile and low-pile carpets also prevent falls.
- Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently and comfortably. Example: Microwave drawers eliminate reaching high to pop in a frozen entrée. Lower rocker-style light switches and higher electrical outlets.
- Size and space for approach and use. Space is provided to approach, reach, and use an area regardless of the user's size, posture, and mobility. Example: Doors that are wide enough for a wheelchair or walker to easily navigate. Similarities to Green Movement
On its Web site, Fletcher's organization compares universal design to the green building movement: "Universal Design and green design are comfortably two sides of the same coin … Green design focuses on environmental sustainability, universal design on social sustainability."
Also similar to green construction, universal design has enjoyed an increase in general acceptance recently. Why? In part, because of its good looks. Thanks to architects and designers, universal design features can be "invisible" in a home. A grab bar may resemble a towel bar or chair railing, yet it provides sturdy support for home owners who are shaky on their feet.
Another plus for new-home buyers: It's roughly a third cheaper to add universal design features during a home's initial construction than to wait and add them several years down the road as a remodeling project, says Rebecca Stahr, who started an Atlanta consultancy, EasyLiving Home, which offers a Universal Design certification for builders.
Many Minds Hard at Work
There's no shortage of advocates for universal design. To learn more on the topic, tune in to one of these organizations. All offer plentiful information on the Web.
- The Georgia Tech Research Institute. Part of Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, this organization works with manufacturers to help develop and improve products so they're easier for everyone to use.
- Universal Design Living Laboratory. The organization's co-president, Rosemarie Rosetti, was paralyzed at age 44 in a bike accident. Today she's interviewing builders with husband Mike Leder (also co-president) to construct a 3,500-square-foot Prairie-style home and garden in Columbus, Ohio. The one-story demonstration house will incorporate elements of universal design and eco-friendly construction. The couple's goal is to position it as a home for people of all ages and abilities.
- American Association of Retired Persons. The association provides home design resources online, including tips for making a home more safe and comfortable — good resources for your clients.
- The National Association of Home Builders offers a certification called CAPS, an acronym for Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists. The program educates building professionals on how to modify houses according to universal design criteria. Since the program was started in 2001, 1,400 members have graduated, says Therese Crahan, executive director of NAHB's Remodelers division.
- The American Society of Interior Designers. Visit the society's online knowledge center on Universal Design, which has articles and helpful links on the topic. You can also access other knowledge centers on aging in place and accessibility.
- Senior Real Estate Specialist. The SRES® designation from NAR trains real estate practitioners on how to meet the needs of "maturing Americans." The coursework includes content relating to Universal Design standards. More than 15,000 REALTORS® already have been certified.
- Universal Design Alliance. This nonprofit corporation is committed to creating awareness and expanding the knowledge of universal design for all ages, sizes, and abilities to designers, builders, and consumers through educational programs, services, and resources.
- IDEA Center. The Center for Inclusive Design and Access is dedicated to improving the design of environments and products by making them more usable, safer, and appealing to people with a wide range of abilities throughout their life spans.