Universal Design in Remodeling, Part 1

Universal design is a great way for homeowners to live comfortably in their home for a long time as well as a novel way for remodelers to give homeowners exactly what they need. Incorporating universal design into a home shows the homeowner that a remodeler knows their stuff and has potential of creating business for a remodeler for years to come. This month universal designer Bryce Jacob, CAPS, vice president of Dave Fox Remodeling, Inc., Columbus, Ohio, lends his expertise to launch a two-part NARI recertification series on universal design.

Universal design refers to the worldwide movement to design products and spaces for people of all sizes, all ages, all physical abilities, from cradle to grave. The goal is for the designs and products to accommodate all people, to be easy to use and be accessible to anyone that would be using a space in the home.

“A good example of universal design is a suitcase,” says Jacob. “Today they have wheels and retractable handles in all sizes, but 15 years ago suit cases came with a handle and you had to schlep it through the airport or find a luggage cart. Universal design creates a certain amount of independence for travelers, much like universal design creates a greater sense of independence in the home.”

Jacob explains that universal design in the home is essentially creating smart designs that naturally become integrated into a home and not make it look different, but make it be usable. Jacob uses the example of faucets and how today they tend to be some sort of lever or easily activated control. No one thinks anything of how years ago it was typical to put in big crystal ball handles that were harder to handle once hands were wet. Those old handles became even harder on little hands or arthritic hands once the working mechanisms began to corrode.

But we’re not just talking about faucets. Appliances are being designed to accommodate people and space to work with multilevel countertops. Similar height couples have no problem using the same counter, but couples where the wife and husband are both over 6 ft. may raise counters to make it easier for them in their home.

“There is no set standard of 34 in. for counters anymore,” adds Jacob. “It’s important to see who will be using the space and what would be an appropriate height for that home.”

When Jacob operated retirement communities, they were a great place for seniors to come, but they came there because of a crisis and not because they were thrilled to be moving there. It accommodated them. The bathrooms alone didn’t have all the safety risks that homes have. That’s why the aging population is more tuned into universal design because they are looking at ways to make things easier for them to stay in their homes longer. “It isn’t just a trend; it’s meeting the needs of every stage of life,” says Jacob.

The market at large doesn’t use universal design as common language. If you think of green design, it’s a good example of something that 10 years ago, even though it existed and builders and remodelers were talking about it, the public at large thought it was nothing more than a color. Today it’s become mainstream.

“As remodelers we have to reinforce and become good educators of universal design in the market,” explains Jacob. “Because when we’re on the leading edge of a movement, we have to get the terminology out there so that it is common language. It’s not just putting out an ad or saying universal design on the radio; you have to be an educator and, frankly, it’s the educators that get all the sales. You need to reinforce on your Website that you focus on universal design to continue that message.”

A company can open a lot of doors if it is well versed in universal design and the remodeling practices required to take advantage of it, according to Jacob. For example, instead of just updating a kitchen, remodelers should be asking the questions of who is using the kitchen and who visits regularly.

“There are so many questions that remodelers don’t ask that will help the design be better in the end,” explains Jacob. “If they take the time to figure the entire family dynamic, when they come back to the client with a design solution, they can explain why they have designed it the way that they have — to meet the different needs of the family. The client can then see and become more focused on the solutions and the investment is justified even stronger.”

Jacob warns though that a remodeler doesn’t have to go in and completely universally design a home because clients do have a budget. Universal design is not an all-or-nothing approach. A larger universal design project can be phased and a remodeler can advise and consult as to what would be best for the homeowner to do at that point. A remodeler could potentially have a client for life if a project is phased.

In getting started Jacob suggests that a company educate itself and put together a list of constants so that it knows what it is talking about to clients. One of the mistakes some remodelers make is getting an idea and deciding to implant it in their business with someone who embraces the idea.

“You need to find that point person who is passionate about it on staff that can specialize and sell it instead of making everyone in the company an expert on it,” says Jacob. “Otherwise they’re not going to sell it and opportunities will be missed.”

Proceed to the test