Most aging Americans want to stay in their own homes for as long as possible. So with the first wave of boomers hitting official retirement age next year, universal design seems destined to go mainstream. After all, by 2030, more than 70 million Americans will be over 65. But builders needn’t wait for that critical mass to start thinking about how to make their houses safer and more accessible. To the extent that universal design is just plain good design (not to mention a boon to resale value) why not start now?

For builders who want to get started, AARP offers a Livable Communities evaluation guide with specific recommendations and checklists for individual homes and whole neighborhoods. And for those looking for great examples, the winners of this year’s Livable Communities Awards, sponsored by AARP and the NAHB, prove that universal design doesn't need to look either ugly or institutional. At first glance, you’d never know some of these projects are accessible.

“Universal design is a way of offering independence, choice, and control for all people," Amy Levner, AARP manager of housing and mobility options, said during a Wednesday press conference announcing the winners at the International Builders Show (IBS) in Las Vegas. That means thinking about houses as evolutionary entities and designing them accordingly.

"In some cases there are things you can do structurally upfront to create homes that are easy to upgrade or adjust later. It’s not just about making your house perfectly accessible today, but rather putting a structure in place so your house can grow with you over time," Lavner said.

We offer a closer look at this year's winners, complete with video tours:

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Atlanta, GA, Chicago, IL, Seattle, WA.