9 Great Details from the Universal Design Living Laboratory

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Help your clients feel more comfortable at home, no matter their age or ability, with thoughtful touches like these.

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After Rosemarie Rossetti lost the use of her legs in a 1998 accident, her experience trying to find a home that met her new needs only added insult to injury. The home she and husband Mark Leder lived in at the time was hard to maneuver through once Rosemarie became a wheelchair user. No amount of remodeling would help, so the couple turned to area builders only to find that new homes didn't offer many better solutions.

Together, Rosemarie and Mark opted to build a custom home that has since become the Universal Design Living Laboratory. In addition to being the couple's home and office, the UDLL is an education center for builders, architects, and the public to learn how to create homes that work for all of their residents, no matter their age or ability. Products editor Lauren Hunter recently toured the UDLL and found a number of details worth sharing, many of which are easily incorporated into new construction. Here are nine of her favorites.

Safe and Sound: Knox Box
In emergency situations, first responders will gain access to a home in the most efficient ways possible. If this means breaking down a door, so be it - unless you have a Knox Box. This mini safe works similarly to a lock box that a Realtor might use when showing a home. The fire department has a key to the Knox Box, which stores your emergency house key inside, allowing them to open a door properly rather than breaking it down. Because, as Mark points out, the last thing homeowners should be thinking about in an emergency situation is how much door replacement costs. 

Outdoor Enjoyment: Planter Boxes
Adjusting to life in a wheelchair made Rosemarie's love of gardening a challenge. Mark says chair-height planters bring the gardening to a convenient height for Rosemarie to roll up to and tend any time she likes. The landscaped back yard also incorporates paver ramps and pathways so the couple can enjoy all of its amenities together.

See Through: Multi-level Peep Holes
Traditional entry doors have peep holes positioned at a height between 60 and 66 inches. Consider adding a peephole at closer to 48 inches for wheelchair users, children, and homeowners short of stature. Or, let the door glass do the work for you. In addition to daylighting as a universal design benefit, the glass in this ProVia door has clear panes for viewing at three different heights in the door. 

Cooking Confidence: Easy Access Burners
ADA-compliant ranges put the cooktop controls at the front of the appliance so users can access them easily without reaching over hot surfaces. The UDLL takes things a step further by installing individual burners side by side in the cooking area, eliminating the problem of hard-to-reach back burners. In this configuration, Rosemarie can easily and safely reach each cooking element, as well as vent hood controls.

Island Hopping: Multi-level Kitchen Island
Bakers have lauded the benefits of a lowered section of counter space, which offers better leverage for kneading and mixing. But multi-level countertops are ideal for universal design. In the UDLL kitchen island, a raised portion works well for Mark who stands well over 6 feet tall, and also makes room for easy-access undercounter appliances. Another section of the island stands at traditional 36-inch height, while a lowered section is ideal for seated cooks, homework, or casual dining.

Vanity Fair: No Tilted Mirrors
Another example of a lowered counter height is in the front hall bathroom. In addition to providing accessibility, Mark says the 32-inch vanity height let them bring the bottom of the mirror lower as well. The result is a lovely design that avoids awkward (and often institutional) tilted mirrors.

Shower Convenience: Lowered Niche
The master shower features a wall niche about a foot above the floor where it's convenient for Rosemarie to store toiletries. The lowered niche makes for easier access than niches or shelves that are usually placed mid-way up the wall.

Future Planning: Ceiling Blocking
Installing extra blocking behind walls to accommodate future grab bars is nothing new in universal design, but don't forget the ceiling. Planning for a future in which he or another caregiver may no longer be able to lift Rosemarie, Mark had blocking added inside the ceiling above the bathtub and the beds in the home to make lift systems easier to install down the line.

Power Play: Electrical Panels in the Garage
Electrical panels are often installed in the basement or some out-of-the-way corner, but homeowners that can't make it up and down stairs may not be able to access them if a breaker trips or the power goes out. In the UDLL, Mark solved this problem by moving the panels to the garage and installing them at a wheelchair-accessible height. The garage has a no-threshold transition so Rosemarie can move through it easily and check the panels if necessary.