June 28, 2010
Nation's Building News

The Official Online Newspaper of NAHB

50+ Housing
Panel Discusses Broadening Universal Design Appeal by Making Features ‘Invisible’

A recent webinar panel on universal design said that one of the goals to broaden the appeal of the design principle was “invisible integration”— incorporating universal design features to help make a house work for as many different people as possible without them being noticeable or obvious.

Panelists at “Reimagining Universal Design: Trends, Techniques and Cutting-Edge Products,” held on June 16, also discussed how universal design extends the appeal of a home, since it enables the home to work for a wide age range of residents — from the very young through the elderly.

Webinar moderator Mary Jo Peterson, CAASH, of Mary Jo Peterson, Inc., a design consulting firm specializing in universal design and based in Brookfield, Conn., said that while the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Accessibility regulations are prescriptive and precise regarding accessibility, “universal design is performance-based and a way of thinking” about how to make a house both functional and beautiful.

Incorporating universal design is economically beneficial because it will enable a home to accommodate residents of any age as well as those with an injury, disability or age-related issues — eliminating or minimizing the need to remodel in the future. It also enables the home to accommodate a resident who might otherwise need to move to a more supportive — and more expensive — living situation.  

By minimizing the need for changes, the panel said universal design homes appeal to those who value sustainability — a growing priority among today’s home buyers.

“Universal design is not necessarily more expensive, especially if it’s designed into new construction,” said Diana Schrage, of Kohler. “Designers can improve people’s lives with solutions that empower and include.”

Universal design also meets the needs of multi-generational households, another trend that has grown during the current economic climate. In these homes, faucets can be raised or lowered with intuitive LED lighting and touch controls that do not require dexterity, and showers can be programmed for temperature and individual preferences.

Some of these homes also incorporate more user-friendly refrigerators that store cooler and frozen foods in the lower shelves and drawers. Many also feature induction cooktops that heat the food but not the cooktop — and that are safer not only for family elders, but for young children as well.

Panelists also pointed to features that aren’t typically thought of as specific to universal design, but are helpful in their functionality while also appealing to more and more home owners. Such features include multiple counter heights in the kitchen, extra lighting, pull-down shelving and curved edges on counters, tubs and other fixtures.

They said that zero-threshold showers are not only helpful for the mobility-impaired, they generally reduce the danger of tripping or falling for everyone in a family.

When discussing universal design features with home owners, however, Peterson noted that using the right words when presenting the options is important because home owners are still somewhat reluctant or hesitant about universal design when specific phrases are discussed.

Consequently, Peterson said that builders and remodelers should avoid using terms like “accessible toilets” and instead say “comfort-height” toilets. Likewise, instead of calling an accessible shower a “wheelchair shower,” refer to it as a “curbless shower.”

“Our words have to be as subtle as our designs,” Peterson said.

Panelist John Wesley Miller, of John Wesley Miller Companies of Tucson, Ariz., pointed to the connection between universal design and green and sustainable building.

“Builders are the environmentalists. We build the lived-in environment,” he said, while noting that lower energy and water bills are a priority among home owners of all ages and abilities.

He also said that an open shower plan works well with radiant heat — again a feature that benefits the very young and very old — age groups whose bodies do not easily adjust to temperature changes as readily — as well as just about anyone who might want to step out of a shower onto a warm floor on a cold morning.

‘Universal Design for the Home’ Available From NAHB BuilderBooks

Universal Design for the Home,” available through NAHB BuilderBooks, features a blend of projects, creative ideas and substantive planning information for incorporating universal design. 

Highly visual, the book features projects showing room contexts and photos of details. Basic specifications, how-to tips and other technical content are featured throughout the book in easy-to-find boxes and sidebars. 

To view or purchase this publication online, click here.

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