IMAGINE HOW MUCH easier it would be for a parent with a toddler and an infant to get from the garage or driveway into their new house without having to navigate even one step up to the door, or to haul a load of laundry or groceries, with one kid in tow and another one on hip, through slightly wider door openings and hallways. How much more would that family pay for a house with those and similar lifestyle or convenience features, or at least be more likely to purchase it instead of one without them?
Somewhere in the complexity of today's housing market, the concept of universal design (UD) got a little lost in the shuffle, or at least pushed down the priority ladder, as a point of marketable (and profitable) distinction for home builders. Or maybe it is simply masked in a variety of increasingly popular products and design schemes, including refrigerator drawers, walk-in showers, covered porches, and modular garage and closet storage systems.
But make no mistake: UD is a sleeping giant awaiting the alarm of demand from aging baby boomers, up-and-coming echo boomers, and softening market conditions. “Designing a house for an average-size, able-bodied adult male is no longer realistic given our changing culture and demographics,” says John Salmen, president of Universal Designers & Consultants in Takoma Park, Md. “Accommodating disabilities is only the tip of the iceberg of universal design's value.”
Like green building, an equally worthy ideal for better housing, universal design has slowly but surely progressed—albeit stealthily—in its marketability, affordability, and available options to serve the mainstream. Designers and builders who already employ single-lever kitchen and bath faucets, wall ovens, pocket doors, main-level master suites, hard-surface flooring, and thoughtful, task-driven lighting layouts to attract buyers who care about aesthetics find themselves more than a few steps down the universal design path already.
Builders either dedicated to the concepts of UD or some variation of it, or aware of its impending market value enough to consciously implement and sell some of its principles, enjoy a bevy of how-to information about the concept and its execution. UD-specific design idea and house plan books, printed and electronic catalogs of accessible products, illustrated technical manuals for critical rooms and conditions, and online guides and checklists abound in both volume and detail (see “Resources,” page 166), showing how to apply UD to any and all types of market-driven housing.
The stumbling block, of course, is why to do it. Save some scattered municipalities mandating “visitability” (a scaled-down derivative of UD) in new one- and two-dwelling homes, there are no laws governing private-sector single-family builders regarding accessibility, as there are for multifamily and commercial developers.
“Builders tell us that younger buyers don't value it, unless they know for sure that an older parent or relative is going to move in with them,” says Richard Duncan, senior project manager at the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. But, he suggests, “builders can sell the ease of use and convenience as differentiating points” to all of their buyers.
Devote some thought to it, and it becomes clear how stepless entries, wider doors and hallways, lever handles, D-shaped cabinet pulls, and midheight lighting, electrical, and environmental controls on the walls—among a host of UD features and products—can appeal to a true mainstream of buyers instead of a select few measuring exactly 5 feet 8 inches tall who will go through life without even an occasional injury, much less arthritis, back trouble, or an even more severe chronic disability. “The more people who experience those things, the more receptive they'll become” to UD features, says Dr. Betty Jo White, a professor at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., who leads a departmental focus on UD.
White says the same goes for builders who also may experience or have to manage physical limitations on a personal level, either their own, a spouse's or child's, or an elderly parent's. The experience of not being able to function in their own homes, she says, will likely inspire or motivate builders to consider adding UD features in their future new-home projects.
Some builders' reluctance to incorporate UD stems from a concern about building houses that look institutional, highlighted by grab bars, wheelchair ramps, and lower counter heights. “That's confusing UD with a fully accessible home,” says Duncan, a common mistake made by builders, he says. “Know what you're building and what to call it. The ideal for UD is a mainstream spec house, not a nursing home.”