What’s that slogan coined by AARP? “60 is the new 30?” Friends in their 40s, 50s, even their 60s have told me more that once, and I quote them here, “Middle age is 10 years older than I am.” I have even used the phrase myself. With so many older adults living active lifestyles and unwilling to slow down, it’s no wonder they aren’t more aware of universal design.
But universal design is not about the now. It’s about the future, possibly well into the future. So what’s a builder or architect to do? How do you reach this market?
Add Pizzazz to Your Universal Design
You “wow” them, of course. In universal design, form and function can be accomplished with style and pizzazz. In fact, many of the features buyers want possess universal design components.
AARP considers my home as a model for universal design. It’s even featured in the universal design section (Interative Home Tours: "A Capitol House") of the AARP Web site, www.aarp.org. Built in the 1990s, my home existed before universal design was the formal architectural concept it is now. When I built my home, the only future needs I addressed were to design it so that I could live in it comfortably and conveniently for as long as I wanted to live there. Of course, my home is accessible and incorporates many universal design features because I am in a wheelchair.
My home has earned a Finest For Family Living Award in Maryland and Florida in the homes-over- $3 million category. Among its many amenities are outdoor and indoor swimming pools, a movie theater and a heated driveway. Neither award submission mentioned that the home has universal design features or is wheelchair accessible.
The key to its success in a universal design sense is that all the accessibility features are so well incorporated, or as the AARP Web site points out, so perfectly concealed, that guests may not even be aware of the specialized areas. It’s comfortable for me, it’s comfortable for my guests and it’s designed and built for my entire family, from the youngest to the oldest.
So what kinds of features are we talking about? Are they transferable to production-style or semi-custom homes? And lastly, are these features that home owners want?
An Accessible Entry Can Have Curb Appeal
A ramp and curb appeal do not have to be mutually exclusive. When properly designed, a ramp can be close to invisible from the streetscape. My home incorporates a three-part entry ramp designed into the landscape. A step leads to my front door, but the ramp deftly bypasses it. Many guests don't notice the ramp when they first visit my home.
If you don’t want to incorporate a ramp, you easily can design and offer a stepless entry. I offer my customers both ramps and stepless entries. Just be sure that the front entry is accessible. Nothing turns off a home owner more than to always have to enter his or her home through a back door.
The front door should be wide enough to easily accommodate a wheelchair. That also applies to hallways. I prefer to make my hallways four, five, even six feet wide. Not all hallways have to be six feet wide, but they shouldn’t be three feet wide either. Your home buyers will appreciate more elbowroom. It makes the home that much more attractive, and most buyers will trade a little space from other rooms for wider hallways.
Make the Volume Dance
Volume is as important as width. Like many active adult home buyers, I’m a big fan of volume. My home has a variety of ceiling heights and styles in several rooms. There’s a domed ceiling in the foyer, a tray ceiling with hidden lights in the bedroom, a pyramid ceiling in my library and a 20-foot ceiling in the family room. Just about every room in the main-floor living area is a different height or ceiling style.
Designers once used sunken living rooms and step-down dens or family rooms that created a sense of volume and movement, but that trend has become obsolete. Today's buyers want level floors, but not at the expense of movement. That’s where volume comes into play. Offering a range in room heights promotes the illusion of movement while maintaining a level floor. You don’t have to incorporate as much variety in your homes as I did in mine, but add some variety; that's what the market demands.
I have found that many active adult home buyers no longer want grand U-shaped stairways. Instead, they prefer the stairs to be concealed, which is also compatible with universal design.
In my home, the stairs leading to the upstairs bedrooms are off to the side while the stairs leading to the game/billiard area and movie theater are off another hallway. I also have a hidden elevator large enough for my wheelchair.
All the flooring in my home is hard-surface, with area rugs scattered throughout to add warmth. It is easier for a wheelchair user to maneuver on hard surfaces than on cut pile carpeting. It’s a universal design “must have,” but it’s also a feature that many buyers request.
Be Aware of Bathroom Dimensions
You don’t have to put grab bars or rails in the bathrooms: just plan for them. As for bathtubs, the general market is slowly moving away from spa tubs, and that’s a good thing for universal design. From my perspective, a normal-depth tub is easier to get in and out of and much more convenient than a deeper one. My tub also has a ledge around it that is of wheelchair height and wide enough for me to transfer from wheelchair to the tub — a must when incorporating universal design as well as an attractive convenience.
I splurged a bit by installing what I call a “drive-through” shower. Equipped with multiple shower heads and body sprays, it has shower openings on both ends so I can wheel through — much like a car wash — whenever I want to shower.
Elaborate showers may not be a practical feature for most universal design homes. However, upscale home buyers are trending away from two-person tubs and toward two-person showers. More affluent buyers want showers equipped with shower seats, multiple shower heads and body sprays — and no-threshold openings. All those features fit in nicely with universal design.
I also have installed a custom vanity in my bathroom with enough legroom beneath it so I can comfortably use my wheelchair.
A Kitchen Fit for an Owner
Believe it or not, I did nothing special to the kitchen cabinets. The reason is simple. Before my injury, I was very tall, 6-foot-4. And even though I’m in a wheelchair, I’m still tall; I have a long reach and have no trouble getting items from the upper cabinets.
There’s a small lesson here. The handicapped community is as diverse as the community in general. Some are tall and some are short. Some are heavy and some are thin. The rules of design are basically the same, whether or not they are in wheelchairs or require other mobility assistance. When incorporating universal design features, make sure the features can comfortably accommodate the family buying the home. In other words, one size does not fit all.
A few other “must haves” for universal design can just be part of the luxury package for upscale homes. Instead of doorknobs, use lever door handles. They are easier to operate and much more practical. Besides, there are enough choices out there to satisfy most buyers.
Do away with 30-inch doors and 24-inch closet doors. You don’t have to go overboard, 2-foot 10-inch doors are wide enough, add a touch of luxury and, at that size, enable the bedrooms and bathrooms to be fully accessible.
The features in my home can be incorporated in homes selling for $500,000 or $5 million. They are universal design features that make living easier, but also are optional design features that many buyers want. I incorporate many of them in the custom homes I build: luxury features that are compatible with universal design. I’d call that a breakthrough in buyer awareness.
A Touch of Rose
Some features in my home were designed just for me and it’s amazing how technology is making accessible living more comfortable. My swimming pools incorporate hydraulic chair lifts — lifts powered by water pressure and not electricity — that allow me to get in and out of the water.
A movie buff, I have built a small movie theater with a mini-version of stadium seating and, of course, ample space for multiple wheelchairs. In the lower level family room/activity room, I added a wet bar that can be lowered from its normal height to wheelchair height.
As a technology geek, I fully automated my home and have strategically placed touch screens that allow me to operate the lights, drapes and curtains, air temperature, water temperature, door locks, etc.
I added a special refrigerator outside the movie theater to store my Diet Cokes and Diet Dr. Peppers. To satisfy my sweet tooth, I put a candy counter at wheelchair height so I can sneak a candy bar when my wife isn’t looking.
Finally, I have what can affectionately be called a universal design poker table. I gladly take winnings from disabled as well as able-bodied players.
Michael T. Rose is president and founder of the Laurel, MD-based Michael T. Rose Family of Companies, a nationally recognized builder/developer in the Washington, D.C. area. Rose is an advocate of accessibility and includes many universal design features in the homes he builds, including his own. Rose and his companies have won numerous awards for developing and creating homes and communities that are environmentally sound and built in harmony with nature. Rose can be reached via e-mail or by calling 310-953-3110.
This article was reprinted from the Summer 2004 edition of Seniors' Housing News, published quarterly by NAHB's Seniors Housing Council. For publication information, e-mail Jeff Jenkins, or call him at 800-368-5242 x8292.
To read "Universal Design Solutions Focus on Safety, Lighting and Useability" elsewhere in this issue of NBN Online, click here.
Attend the 2005 Seniors Housing Symposium in Metro Washington, D.C. Area
Learn more about the fastest-growing segment of the housing market. Plan to attend Building for Boomers & Beyond: Seniors Housing Symposium 2005, the premier educational and networking event for industry professionals serving the burgeoning 50+ market. For more information, click here.
[ Go to Top ]