Designed for Life

Universal design is a lot more than just helping those with difficulties getting around the home. It’s about making a home both functional and beautiful in the same moment, because even the homeowners who might require their home to be universally designed, don’t necessarily want it to look that way. In its truest essence it’s really about making the home usable by everyone to the best extent possible without overt specialization being done to the home.

Organizations and studies on universal design are popping up all over the United States. As the population continues to age and live longer, there is this developing want to continue to live the active lifestyles everyone else is living.

Putting it together

“What universal design means for homeowners is that you can live and stay in a home without having to move because your home doesn’t support your activities any longer,” says Richard Duncan, director of universal design training at The Center for Universal Design. “If you need to customize it later on, you won’t have to spend as much money or have nearly the hassle that you would normally have with standard housing.”

The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University focuses its attention on educating homeowners, builders and remodelers on what is expected in order to make a home universally designed. The Center’s original universal house feature list was created in 2001 to ease adoption for contractors and include elements, features and ideas that contribute to components of a universal house. These concepts include areas such as the entrance, making all doorway widths a minimum of 32 in. wide; interior circulation; bathroom; decks, building decks at the same level as the house floor; kitchens; garages and carports; switches and controls; laundry area; storage; home automation; windows; hardware; light and color; and sliding doors.

There’s a whole range of things in kitchen design Duncan talks about: pantry style storage that puts storage at different heights; differential counter heights; and full extension drawers and slide out shelves in base cabinets to be able to get to the things at the back without a lot of bending and stretching to get at those things. Duncan also suggested adding room lighting and undercounter lighting, which is really big right now, especially for older eyes that need the extra light.

“The universal design of the house means that you’ve included some key usability features in a way that’s fully integrated and blended with the overall design of the house and that makes the features invisible,” says Duncan. “It also gives the homeowners a market advantage if they decide to resell the house.”

When looking at longer term growth in a universally-designed home, the Center recommends ways to making future remodeling projects easier like including at least one set of stacked closets, pantries or storage spaces with a knock-out floor if the home is two-story. In the future, as mobility becomes an issue for the homeowners, this space can then be later converted into an elevator shaft. But the center is not the only resource for the industry.

In Suwanee, Ga., the Universal Design Alliance was founded in March of 2003 with a mission to create awareness and expand the public’s knowledge of universal design. The UDA is partnered with other design/build entities to promote universal design features to both industry members and consumers.

As UDA sees it, the housing stock in the United States is built to accommodate the average 25-year-old, 6-ft.-tall male. This is actually a minute segment of the entire population, meaning that most homes are not built to the best design for most homeowners. Of course the baby boomers can’t be overlooked these days, as their aging is spurring so many trends in today’s market. They have the greatest amount of wealth, with women living longer than men. The UDA focuses on these aspects, as well as others, to find the best way to make everyone happy in the home they are living in.

“As remodelers you have to be careful bringing up the subject of universal design with homeowners if they aren’t specifically asking you for it,” says Duncan. “Some people might take it that you think they’re getting old and need universal design in the home. It’s just something that people don’t really want to think about if they don’t have to.”

Among Duncan’s suggestions for bringing up the topic, he advises talking about the homeowner’s parents, in-laws or other extended family coming to visit. By talking about the difficulty visiting family members might have getting around the home, consumers can see the benefit of making some changes around the house, not feel threatened and understand the idea of added value.

Remodeling checklist

The Aide Association for Retired Persons, or AARP, includes lots of advice for older homeowners trying to increase their mobility. It includes education on understanding universal design and 10 easy steps for making a home safer and more comfortable. Including in its suggestions are installing handrails on both sides of all steps, installing easy-to-grasp shaped handles for all drawers and cabinet doors and using brighter light bulbs in all settings.

“Universal design is a phrase that is about 20 years old and has never gotten the name recognition that we all wanted it to,” says Elinor Ginzler, director for livable communities for AARP. “Sometimes what it gets is almost the wrong recognition. This is not about making a home handicap accessible. This is about having features in the home that are helpful to everyone of all ages and all abilities.”

Ginzler goes on to talk about simple changes that can be done to a home to make it more universally designed. For instance, door handles on a home can be changed to lever handles. This makes it easier for the older person with arthritis, the young kid with developing motor skills and the middle-aged mother coming home from the store with bags in her hand. What may seem like just a preference in style or need can really just be a result of universal design.

AARP takes its universal design ideas a step further though and has compiled a checklist for all the major aspects of the home like bathrooms; safety, lighting and storage; doors, floors and walkways; and a final checklist to rate their homes and figure out what special needs a homeowner may need to consider. An invaluable tool not only to consumers, but remodelers as well, these checklists can help remodelers sit down with home-owners and really figure out what work should be done on a home to make it truly universally designed.

“A friend had an addition built onto her home and approved the features and design for the bathroom, and only after it was finished did the remodeler tell her that, ‘by-the-way that bar over there is a grab bar,’ ” tells Ginzler. “She said, ‘What are you talking about? That’s a towel bar.’

‘Yes it is,’ he said, ‘and it’s also a grab bar.’

Ginzler continues, “It’s just another great example of a multipurpose, multifunction, nonstigmatizing way to make the bathroom safe and comfortable for her throughout her lifetime.”

Remodeler’s resource

Now in its 17th edition is the 2007 Directory of Accessible Building Products. This guide is sponsored by the 50+ Housing Council, the NAHB Remodelers, Toolbase Services and Lowe’s and is compiled by the NAHB Research Center. In this invaluable resource for remodelers, the NAHB has compiled products and companies that manufacture products that meet ADA requirements (as well as other government acts and agency guidelines) and therefore would be good fits for homeowners looking to update their home with universal design.

“There are more and more universally designed products for the home,” says Duncan. “Now when you want a shower system or grab bar that is more options than just one or two.”

Among the areas that are profiled in the 2007 Directory are appliances, cabinets, sinks and faucets; bathroom fittings and fixtures; ramps and handrails; elevators; doors, windows, and assistive hardware.

“As remodelers, you have to be careful making universal design, and especially the custom stuff, your sole business,” says Duncan. “We’ve seen people jump in with both feet and fail miserably because you still have to hunt down clients. Getting involved with local healthcare associations is a good way to get started, but universal design makes much more sense as a component of the remodeling business and not the single focus.”

New to the universal design category is a joint award between AARP and NAHB to recognize creative and unique home and community projects. The Livable Communities Award will be presented annually for both a large and small project in each category with cost being the determining factor for remodelers’ categories. For more information on the awards or to download an application, visit

With all these resources available, along with education and the popularity of designations like Certified Aging in Place Specialist, there is no reason why a remodeler couldn’t get into this very lucrative market. What makes it easier for remodelers these days is the understanding by manufacturers that is becoming less of a want in the industry and more of a need. In order to continue making consumers happy it will necessary to appeal to their issues and address their concerns with being comfortable in the home.