Convenient Cache: Universal Design Going Forward

Although it sometimes may seem that everything to be said on the topic of Universal Design must surely have been said, this topic is so hot right now that I feel compelled to offer an update on current news and directions.
Recently, including at this year’s International Builders’ Show, there were a number of new and notable products and product design improvements being shown.

Builders and remodelers – yes, builders and remodelers – are helping to drive the message, as are critical social impact powers, including AARP, with Livable Community Awards and outreach programs (www.aarp.org, search universal design). The design community has been embracing the active aging our boomer population is experiencing, and as one speaker at the Builders’ Show said, “The wave is cresting, and it’s a tidal wave.”

With all of this energy focused on Universal Design and aging in place, and on “easy living” concepts and products, it seems like a good time to touch on a few of the current news clips and the resulting benefits to our clients to inspire your future design efforts.

Beauty and Function

NAHB and AARP have joined forces to offer an award for Livable Communities, and this year’s winners made news at the Builders’ Show. The winning projects represent unique combinations of style, Universal Design and energy efficiency to make them desirable homes and neighborhoods for people of all ages to live in. 

One of the winners, a demonstration home built by Eskaton Senior Residences and Services (www.eskaton.org), offered many of the subtle design concepts that we have come to expect as good Universal Design and just good design in general. These include varied-height vanities, a no-threshold shower and bath accessories that enhance the beauty of the space while improving safety and access. In the kitchen, the home featured an opportunity to sit while working, appliances at comfortable heights and counters at varied heights for the comfort of cooks of different sizes.

A more remarkable feature in the Eskaton home was a home automation system that linked the homeowner to both community and health care. Through applications of technology new to many of us, this system allowed a homeowner or resident to take their blood pressure or check blood sugar levels or otherwise communicate with their health care providers without having to leave the house. As we move from our current population of 35 million over age 65 to an expected 70 million in 2030, the benefits of staying at home, where we wish to be, are immeasurable.

When I am speaking about Universal Design, questions always come up regarding where and how to find products. The good news is that our manufacturers are getting very clever when it comes to convenience, which usually means improved access or easier use, so the answers abound. Some of the best matches occur when the manufacturer may not have focused on access, but the product’s good design lends itself to it. Following are just a few examples.

The laundry detergent dispensers in the base of the raised-height, front-loading washing machine offered by GE are not only tremendously convenient, they eliminate some serious bending and lifting that would otherwise be necessary.

The Delta touch control faucets are convenient for any cook whose hands are gooey, and they also offer options for those of us having grip issues.

Responding to the demand or need for improved access and convenience, more examples include the Broan remote control ventilation systems and the Kohler Karbon articulating faucet that can be positioned wherever and however the cook needs it. There are many additional products that incorporate subtle support, technology and improved design to enhance access and use. Among these are induction cooking, touch opening/closing on appliances and cabinets, drawer options for appliances and cabinetry, toilets and bath fixtures that support the user, ovens that think for the cook, laundry partners that communicate, subtle support systems to replace institutional grab bars and more. In short, the question today should involve not “what product or where can it be found” but which product to use.

Design Details

Historically, the search for attractive Universal Design was a long and difficult one, but today there are many examples that feature designs that are as accessible as they are aesthetically pleasing. At the top of the list for design inspiration is Green Mountain Ranch, the home of Cynthia Liebrock, long-time guru of Universal Design (www.agingbeautifully.org). It should come as no surprise that the expected blending of Universal Design and beauty is very well evident there.

Beyond that, flexibility and subtle design concepts make this a lovely place to live and, for designers, a wonderful source of inspiration. My favorite design detail is in the master bath, where glass tiles adjacent to the toilet include one on either side that can be removed by gripping a small decorative hardware on each. When they are removed, drop down grab bars can be dropped in to increase support for a person using the fixture. It’s an effort worthy of attention and I encourage you to visit the Web site and take the tour.

I am learning that the longer one lives, the more one appreciates the importance and value of Universal Design. At the Builders’ Show, I connected with a group called “Homes for Our Troops,” building homes for the many veterans returning from war with changed abilities (www.homesforourtroops.org). In the week prior to the show, I had traveled to Craig Rehab Hospital to visit with my vibrant and healthy niece who has been there for three months, working full time at recovering as much as she can from a sports accident that nearly cost her life. While she recovers, the family is hard at work modifying her home so she will be able to return to life there.

Whether it’s trauma or just natural aging that contributes to the physical changes that occur in our lives, isn’t it just good design to support the variety of needs our kitchens and baths can meet? Thanks to the social and building industry powers that are focusing on improving people-centered design for our homes, we have much more opportunity as we focus on that same people-centered design in our kitchens and baths.

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