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What’s New in Universal Design?

Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, DBD, CAPS
Mary Jo Peterson, Inc.

Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, CBD, CAPS, a principal with Mary Jo Peterson, Inc. in Brookfield, Conn., is
a certified kitchen and bath designer and educator with expertise in universal/accessible design. She provides design services for residential and commercial builders in New England and consulting support to home builders nationwide. Her clients have included US Home, Ryan Homes, Del Webb, Beazer, RGC and UDC, among others.

Peterson chairs the 50+ Housing Council’s convention education working group and frequently gives talks about the active adult and aging-in-place market. She also teaches the Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) program for the Remodelors™ Council.

NAHB recently asked Peterson to explain some of the basics that builders and remodelers need to know when expanding into universal design. Here are her thoughts:

Q.  Why should builders consider using universal design?

A.  Builders and remodelers need to be able to respond to the changing needs of any household. In addition, they need to acknowledge the needs of aging-in-place active adults. Universal design allows them to do that.

But universal design has to be incorporated in context. When done correctly, it’s invisible and is just good design.

Q.  What universal design features are popular and will help a builder sell homes?

A.  In the production market, kitchen features are very popular. These include raised dishwashers (when the design supports them), improved cabinet accessories to enhance access — rollout shelves, pullout pantries, more drawers, etc. ― and varying counter heights.

As the price point goes up, more accessible appliances are available — cooktops and ovens rather than a range for instance — that put things within better reach of most people.

With price points higher still comes kitchen features that include dishwashers and refrigerators with drawers and separate work stations that are user-friendly to a variety of cooks.

  • More Lighting: Another key and popular universal design feature is improved lighting.

  • In the Bath: Reinforced grab bars are becoming more common, as are wider doorways and larger showers with seats and without thresholds ― when the design allows.

  • No-Step Entries: In general, at least one no-step entry — a sloped walkway or other integrated design ― is a popular feature when it can be incorporated.

  • Open Floor Plans: More open floor plans that make it easier to get around the house are important ― and popular, too. There are many more.

Marketing universal design features must be subtle, however. So emphasize improving or enhancing lifestyle, not supporting needs.

There are no short answers about how to do this effectively, except maybe this one. The design must be beautiful. If not, don’t do it.

Q.  What are the current trends in universal design?

A.  People are asking for larger bathrooms and, within them, showers and more clear floor space. Also, vanity sinks that look great and have knee space rather than cabinet doors beneath them are popular.

Q.  What are some of the newest innovations in universal design/aging in place in kitchens and baths?

A.  New products are introduced daily, which is good.

Recent examples include a drawer microwave oven and, as I’ve said before, drawers in dishwashers and refrigerators; vanity sink designs that encourage and beautify the concept of knee space; larger, open showers; and more “no-hands” technology for faucets, flushing, liquid soap and other operations.

I keep a “new UD (universal design) products” file and toss new product information in it all the time. Most products will work if the designer breaks out of the box and logically considers what would be an easier way to install a product or use a space.

Q.  Have consumers finally realized that universal design doesn’t have to be “institutional”?

A.  That realization is becoming more accepted, but there is still a huge aversion to anything that suggests that the consumer is “older” or “needs help.”

The message builders and remodelers have to convey when discussing universal design with clients is that the features and products are “smarter” and that they provide convenience and pampering.

For more information, e-mail Peterson, or call her at 203-775-4763.

Learn More About 50+ Housing Through the 50+ Housing Council

To learn more about 50+ housing, join the NAHB 50+ Housing Council. The council provides information, education, networking and recognition opportunities for its members and represents NAHB on seniors housing issues. For more details, e-mail Jeff Jenkins or call him at 800-368-5242 x8292.

NAHB Members: Subscribe to 50+ Housing e/Source

50+ Housing e/Source, the regular e-newsletter of the NAHB 50+ Housing Council, is a builder's guide to the emerging, evolving 50+ housing market, offering industry updates as well as important NAHB and council news. Distributed once a month, 50+ Housing e/Source details information, products and services within the 50+ housing market that will enhance your bottom line. Go to the NAHB Web site to subscribe.

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