Two builders, two developers, and a remodeler received the first Livable Communities Awards, presented by the National Association of Home Builders and AARP. The awards, presented Dec. 11 in Washington, recognize homes and communities that are well designed, safe, comfortable, and accessible, regardless of the occupants' age or abilities.

Winning builders John Wesley Miller Cos. of Tucson, Ariz., and Wendt Builders of Snellville, Ga.; developers the Madison Area Community Land Trust of Madison, Wis., and Integral Group of Atlanta; and remodeler Quality Design & Construction in Raleigh, N.C., will also be recognized in the January/February 2008 issue of AARP magazine, which is distributed to 23 million homes nationwide.

"What we want to see is innovation in the marketplace," said Elinor Ginzler, AARP's director of livable communities. "We know from talking to our members that while they want comfort and safety, they don't want a feeling that they're in an institution."

Bill Slease, owner of Tapestry Custom Homes in McKinney, Texas, and a long-time proponent of universal design, had been preparing his own entry for the competition when he was asked to serve as a judge in the builder category. He was impressed by all the entries.

"Even in some of the more simple presentations, you could tell when you looked at the pictures that the builder's heart was in it," Slease said. "There wasn't one entry that didn't have energy and passion."

Where the winning entries shone through, he said, was in the execution. "Some people understood universal design could be beautiful as well as functional. Those things start to stand out when you line the projects up side by side. The winners had a little more style, taste, and thought."

Homes Spotlight Comfort and Safety

In the category for homes up to 2,500 square feet, John Wesley Miller Cos. won for Armory Park del Sol in Tucson, a net-zero energy design with features such as solar panels and solar hot water.

All the homes in the neighborhood have ramps from the sidewalks to the front porches, no steps to climb, 36-inch-wide doors, and hallways that are 4 feet wide or wider. There are also walk- or roll-in showers and comfort-height toilets.

In addition, sidewalks are 6 feet wide instead of 4, making it easy for two wheelchairs to pass each other, and the houses face each other from across a walkway instead of a street. "It's walker friendly, but not so vehicle friendly," said John Wesley Miller.

Wendt Builders' Chandler plan in the Olde Town Grayson community in Grayson, Ga., won for homes larger than 2,500 square feet. Wendt founded the local 50-plus council and was the first builder in Georgia's EasyLiving Home program, a voluntary builder certification program that seeks to make homes cost-effective, accessible, and convenient.

Wendt Builders' prize-winning home includes such features as barrier-free showers with seats and handheld sprayers and, according president Roy Wendt, kitchens with "more drawers than doors so you don't have to bend over to get in the cabinets."

Wendt said universal design gives him something to offer buyers that the national builders can't provide. "The giants are so large, they can't accommodate the wider doors and hallways in their floor plans," he said. "It's a great niche for a small builder."

Developments Mix Incomes and Ages

For developers with up to 250 units, the winner was Troy Gardens, a 30-unit, mixed-income co-housing community built by the Madison Area Community Land Trust in Madison, Wis.

AARP's Ginzler called co-housing, in which buyers share ownership of the property, a "fascinating idea." She said she was particularly interested in the Madison land trust project because it is multigenerational.

"For AARP members, we know this sense of community is very important," Ginzler said.

In the more-than-250-units category, the winning developer was Atlanta-based Integral Group for CollegeTown at West End, a mixed-income, mixed-use community. CollegeTown will eventually feature single-family homes, townhomes, apartments, retail and commercial space, and an inn in a pedestrian-friendly area close to Atlanta's cultural attractions.

"For AARP, a livable community [means] opportunities for residents to be engaged, to be able to walk safely and comfortably where they want to go, and not be dependent on an automobile for their transit needs," Ginzler said. "These are principles that reach across the age span."

The remodeling award went to Dave and Peggy Mackowski, owners of Quality Design and Construction in Raleigh, N.C. The firm won for Ann's Ridge Road Dream, a project that involved transforming a bland duplex into an accessible single-family home. The project features such touches as a first floor without hallways, recessed and task lighting throughout, and multi-level countertops. 

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Tucson, AZ, Atlanta, GA.