Earlier this year at the 2011 American Institute of Architects' (AIA) annual convention, plumbing giant TOTO conducted a 15-minute universal design experiential mini-course, hoping to give architects the opportunity to experience first-hand how physically challenged and older individuals navigate a bathroom.

“TOTO’s goal for our strategic partnership with the AIA is to encourage the inclusion of socially sustainable design, which combines the principles of universal design with those of environmental sustainability in architecture’s mainstream best practices for good design,” said David Krakoff, senior vice president of sales at the company.

The course put participants in the place of physically challenged individuals by reducing their mobility and outfitting them in a suit designed to simulate the effects of aging.

Special goggles reduced participants’ peripheral vision and mimicked the eyesight deterioration of cataracts; earplugs reduced their ability to hear high-frequency sound; a back brace restricted their ability to stand erect; range-of-motion restrictors for their elbows and knees allowed them to experience the sluggish movement of the physically infirm; and 1-pound weights on their wrists and ankles enabled them to experience the effects of muscle and range-of-motion loss.

Once outfitted in the suit and seated in a wheelchair, architects performed a series of hygiene-related tasks, first in a traditional bathroom and then in a universally designed bathroom.

“The objective of this side-by-side comparison is to have the architects feel the difference between the two bathroom designs and come to appreciate the importance that universal design features have in all good design,” Krakoff explained.

What’s clear from the exercise is that universal design must assume greater important for new-home builders, says Washington-based AARP. Manufacturers already are aware of the issue, the group says, and are developing user-friendly appliances, fixtures, and other products.

“Manufacturers understand that universal design products that serve an aging population serve everyone better,” says Nancy Thompson, AARP's senior media relations manager. “Once consumers see user-friendly good design in action, they want it too.”

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