Lesson 2: Universal Design

For our purpose, Universal Design (UD) is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design regardless of age, size, abilities, or lifestyle. Basically, it is how we design our projects to allow our clients to live their life to its fullest. At Legacy Builders & Remodelers Corp. we strive to employ this guiding light whenever possible.

Our process starts when we first meet with a new client. During that first meeting, we like to learn about the lifestyle of the family and what their short-term and long-term goals are for living in the house. Will they be living there a long time, or are they just going to be living there a few years before moving on? Will an elderly parent or relative be coming to live with them some time down the line? Once we determine their intentions, we can bring in the design concepts of Universal Design as a way to illustrate how to make the future in their home more comfortable. We also show them how it may add to the value of their home should they plan to sell it in the future. If we modify the house now and they sell it down the line, it expands the number of potential buyers by including people with special needs. If properly designed the resultant home should be equally functional and appealing to both those with and without special needs. We are presently working with a family that includes a wheelchair bound young lady. The existing home was not suitable for someone in a wheelchair, so we are working to make the home functional and comfortable for everyone without it looking as though it has been modified.

A very important consideration when using Universal Design is making the home useable for those with special needs but still comfortable for everyone living and visiting. For example, in bathrooms, we use blocking in the walls for any current or future grab rail installations. We'll move the location of light switches so they are lower for someone in a wheelchair to use, but someone who is not in a wheelchair will not have difficulty turning the lights on either. On a current project we are installing hands-free faucets, which use infrared technology, for someone with limited mobility. We are also installing a roll-in shower. The threshold is lower so someone can simply roll the wheelchair directly into the shower without having to be transferred from their normal chair to another one in the shower.

We do things differently in other parts of the house as well. For example, in a kitchen we would change the location of the cabinets for people who can't bend low or reach up to them. We can also eliminate steps in the house and outside of it by building a decorative ramp of stone or wood for someone in a wheelchair to get into the house. In yet another situation, we are putting special hinges on a bedroom door, called swing-clear hinges, to make it open wide enough for a wheelchair to pass through. We want to make it useable and comfortable for everyone, without making it look modified.

All remodeling projects should address Universal Design in some form. The client may be healthy today, but many unforeseen events may occur that may present the need for the use of Universal Design principles in the home sometime in the future. And as you may have noticed, we all get older. Therefore, we implement Universal Design principles whenever and wherever possible. One of the largest hurdles we encounter is overcoming the publics' preconceived notion that the modifications will result in an "institutional look". They think any modifications would make the house look less appealing, but we integrate Universal Design without making it look as though we have done so. For example, many of the grab bars installed today look like ordinary towel bars. No one would know that it was a grab bar just by looking at it.

Once the client has learned the benefits of Universal Design principles in their project, the challenge is to make it affordable. The question always comes up, will it cost more. The reality is that it depends on how we implement these principles. General practice or design standards do not cost more. If we make something larger or place it somewhere else, it won't be more expensive for the client. For example, if we make a hallway 4 feet wide rather than 3 feet wide, or if we make a doorway wider, it won't result in a cost difference. However, if we have to add something like a grab bar into a bathroom, that involves more work and therefore will incur an additional expense.

While clients ask if it will cost more, remodelers wonder about the profitability of Universal Design. Using Universal Design concepts in a project might not be more profitable, from a gross profit standpoint, but it makes for a more complete and successful project. We have satisfied all the needs of the client, possibly including some not considered in the original scope of work. They now have a beautifully designed home that is comfortable and functional for all those living and visiting there. Dollar-wise, however, the projects may be more profitable for the remodeler as a result of the expanded scope of work defined by the Universal Design Analysis. Once we begin speaking with a client about the concepts and benefits available to them, the overall size of the project often tends to grow, and therefore the overall profit grows with it. In the long term, the company enjoys greater success due to an expanded market and a broader client base.

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