Designing for Equality

One of the barriers to adopting universal design has been the institutional appearance of some of the products such as bathroom and kitchen fixtures. Now there are many attractive and stylish design choices that can enhance the decor of a home as well as its accessibility to everyone.

Given its merits, one might think that universal design — the providing of access to people regardless of abilities — would be standard in residential dwellings of all types. It is difficult to imagine that anyone would object to having no-step entries, bathrooms with wide doorways and safety features, an elevator, raised appliances, and kitchens that are designed to accommodate the physical limitations of children, the disabled and the elderly.

In practice, many architects and developers still resist the universal design concept. They feel that it adds to costs and requires fixtures that are reminiscent of nursing homes. And while some builders may feel it is a bit presumptuous for others to advocate design standards, we are all consumers, and it is a consumer’s responsibility to make known what design features and built-ins are necessary to make our lives more comfortable and inclusive.

Universal design is defined as the art of planning homes of all types to be inclusive of everyone, regardless of age, ability or physical stature. Its growing number of proponents includes architects, university professors, real estate developers, occupational therapists and specialists in eldercare who believe that this style is the wave of the future, and that the future is now.

“Universal design is a growing trend and a good one,” says Laurence Weinstein, a 40-year veteran architect, developer and space planner for residential and commercial buildings across the United States. “It’s a good thing for everyone, including developers and others involved in marketing homes. Universal design creates relatively inexpensive features that make dwellings more marketable, so it can be a substantial competitive advantage. The universally designed home accommodates all family members at all stages of life, from infants to grandparents, all of whom benefit from homes that impose fewer restrictions on daily activities and maximize independence and safety.”

What’s the holdup?
“One source of reluctance in developing homes with universal design is confusion of the terms ‘accessibility’ and ‘universal design,’” says John Salmen, AIA, president, universal designers and Consultants, Takoma Park, Md. “Accessibility means meeting minimum criteria set by a law or regulation that intended to help a small group of people, usually those with disabilities. When designers look at these accessibility criteria, many look for the cheapest way to address them and move on. The result is the institutional look.

“Universal design takes a much more holistic view of lifespans and people’s changing abilities throughout their lives So, regardless of their experiences and the nature of their lifestyle they can still use the facilities. That’s a much different concept than accessibility and demands a market-based aesthetic which dictates that universal design must look good, and must be appealing to many people.”

Salmen says the added cost of universal design dwellings may be exaggerated or even result from inopportune planning. “When we start to include universal design concepts at the very beginning of the design process, the costs may be minimal. However, the cost of aesthetics and features that are appealing to everyone is a broad question that is often borne of marketing. By appealing to a larger market, as true universal design does, marketing costs may actually be offset.”

Still, one of the barriers to universal design has been the institutional appearance of some bathroom and kitchen fixtures. And while the selection of fixtures and furnishings is nowhere near what it will probably become, there are high-quality, stylish and unobtrusive choices available today.

“Until recent years many of the safety fixtures and design features in areas such as bathrooms and kitchens reminded people of nursing homes,” says Susan Mack, a certified aging-in-place specialist and licensed occupational therapist. Mack is a universal design consultant who advocates inclusive design in single- and multifamily dwellings. “But today many attractive fixtures and design choices make access for everyone aesthetically pleasing as well as functional.”

Mack has advocated design features that accommodate independent living for more than 30 years. Located in Murrieta, Calif., Mack’s company, Homes for Easy Living (www.homesforeasyliving.com), was founded to create homes that incorporate design principles that provide safe, convenient and adaptable homes to meet the diverse needs of their home buyers.

For many years Mack’s work focused on modifications that made homes of all types more accessible and comfortable for disabled and elderly people. Today her perspective is much broader, and includes new dwellings of all types. She attributes this all-embracing philosophy not only to the approaching needs of aging baby boomers, but to the fact that most homes are not sufficiently user-friendly to the majority of the people who live in them.

“The vast majority of homes, whether houses, condominiums or apartments, are designed for a healthy male who is relatively tall, has close to perfect vision and is generally fit,” Mack says. “This person is likely in his 20s and is a minority who will sooner or later become one of the majority — the millions of children, women, disabled or injured, and elderly who compose most of those who are at least somewhat disadvantaged by traditional residential design. It’s no wonder that the home is the place where so many injuries occur.”

Mack points out that many parts of the home are not as safe or accessible as they could be. Those who fall in bathtubs or showers can be badly injured. Insufficient light in hallways and closets can lead to accidents. Kitchen appliances such as low-level dishwashers often cause back strain. Steps in front of thresholds can cause tripping or prevent access to people using walkers or wheelchairs.

At the very least, all homes should be what Mack refers to as visitable, a term introduced a few years ago by Eleanor Smith, an access advocate who was stricken with polio as a child in the mid-1960s. Visitable means that homes should provide on-grade access from the outside through an entry without steps. Ground floor hallways and the bathroom door should be at least 34 inches wide, to permit access by a person in a wheelchair. In Atlanta alone, where Smith lives, 800 houses incorporate her visitability guidelines.

Mack says that universal design goes considerably beyond visitability. “It enhances work efficiency within the home, provides ergonomic benefits that reduce stress on joints and the back, increase comfort and promote healthy living by reducing accidents.”

Many attractive choices
The concept of universal design aims to make homes safer and more comfortable for everyone. It also can make homes more attractive. While the question of elegance vs. function may still exist, there are highly tasteful options available that can make universal design an attractive concept. Incorporating these options into the construction of new homes ensures that the effects will be more economical, lasting and integrated more suitably into all structures.

Perhaps the most noteworthy design choices are those affecting bathrooms and kitchens. The ground floor bathroom is a key area for applying universal design. In the past, this was the area which most suffered from the use of fixtures and accessories which appeared to be straight out of a nursing home. Thankfully, design alternatives today put this issue to rest.

“Because it is used by family and visitors, the ground floor bathroom is an important space that can provide universal design functionality with highly attractive fixtures,” Weinstein notes. “In the bathroom one of the things that I advocate is a larger curbless shower, which allows access for a wheelchair or walker. A universal design show home I’m designing will have a 48- by x 60-in. curbless shower made by Best-Bath Systems.” Best-Bath Systems (www.best-bath.com), a Boise, Idaho-based manufacturer of high-end bath and shower systems, is one of a growing number of companies to have embraced the concepts of universal design with aesthetic appeal.

“Best-Bath has really worked out this technology with a neoprene water dam that depresses as you roll over it and it pops right back up,” Weinstein adds. “The shower walls have blocking behind all three walls of a shower, so if somebody doesn’t want a grab bar now, but needs it later on, they can be installed easily to provide the needed 250-pound load capacity.”

An adjustable shower or handheld showerhead also makes bathing areas more accessible. “They enable maximum flexibility for use with children and adults, and are also great for back massages,” Weinstein says. Many other stylish bathroom fixtures such as comfort-height toilets with coordinated sinks, accessories and accents are available from such brands as American Standard (www.americanstandard-us.com), Kohler (www.us.kohler.com), Moen (www.moen.com) and others.

“When something is hard to use, we notice it,” says Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, CBD, Mary Jo Peterson Inc., Brookfield, Conn., in an interview with Kohler Co. “But one measure of a well-designed product is when an end user doesn’t recognize that it’s easy to use. Kohler Comfort Height toilets are a great example. Most people prefer to sit at chair height and don’t really realize the difference until they end up sitting lower. (The name Comfort Height) doesn’t suggest the height is some sort of aid or a crutch. Instead, it’s inclusive. It’s universal — not separate but equal. It says that design enhancements make all our lives better.”

In addition to appropriate fixtures, universal design bathrooms require a 34-inch entry door and sufficient area to maneuver inside the room. “A spacious bathroom is both attractive and more accommodating,” Mack explains. “It provides necessary maneuverability for the disabled, and allows plenty of room for those who want to assist children or the elderly.”

Kitchens are another vital area for convenient and safe access that can benefit everyone. Mack suggests the use of multilevel countertops and other work areas. Appliances such as dishwashers and wall ovens can be placed at heights that reduce the potential for back strain. “Quality built-in appliances can be placed at a height that is ergonomically appropriate for the fit as well as the elderly,” she says, noting that a side-opening Frigidaire (www.frigidaire.com) wall oven is a good example of a kitchen product offering both innovation and quality.

The universal design show home Weinstein is designing features a dishwasher that is raised 12 inches off the floor so residents don’t have to bend down to load and unload it, Weinstein explains. “Many of the people who visited the model said, ‘What a great idea!’ So, we’re incorporating that feature into homes we’re helping to design for major developers and national home builders.” Weinstein adds that The Irvine Co., a privately held company known for major residential developments in Orange County, Calif., encourages its developers to incorporate the principles of universal design.

In 2001, the national sales director for Sears toured Mack’s universal home. “He especially liked the front-loading washer and dryer with controls in the front that I had placed on top of a framed platform,” Mack says. “Raising these units reduces the need to bend down to get the clothes in and out of the washer and dryer. Now Whirlpool (www.whirlpool.com) and Kenmore (www.kenmore.com) make a raised front-loading washer and dryer with controls in the front.”

Weinstein advises architects, developers and builders to plan for eventual needs of homeowners. For example, he says that architects who design two-story homes might design closets on both floors, one directly above another, at a logical place in the home. “This could easily be converted into the shaftway for easy installation of a residential elevator at a later time if the homeowner may find it physically difficult getting from one floor to the other.”

Weinstein also advocates applying universal design outside the home. He says steps approaching the home often can be eliminated thus creating a no-step entry, by creating a gently graded or sloping walkway so that stairs are totally eliminated. “I’ve done this in a number of instances, and the landscape effect can be dramatic and beautiful,” he says.

Meeting huge demand
The skyrocketing need for universal design has caused many universities, including North Carolina State University, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and the University of Wisconsin, to incorporate the subject into architectural studies.

“If you look at population statistics, you can only conclude that universal design is vital to the quality of life of the majority of Americans,” Weinstein says. “In 2001, over 54 million Americans had a permanent disability, and millions more had some form of temporary or short-term disability. With our aging society, there is an enormous amount of people that could benefit greatly from homes that incorporate universal design features.”

Even though Americans with Disabilities Act regulations require that new multifamily housing developments provide universal access in at least 10 percent of their units, these units are not reserved for the people who need them, Mack explains. Hence, the shortage in rental accommodations has been minimally affected.

Weinstein formed Shared Solutions America, a non-profit organization in the San Diego area that advises architects, designers, builders and consumers on how to successfully apply the principles of universal design in both existing and new living environments.

“I came out of retirement because I feel that the cause of universal design is a crucial movement mission that can enhance the lives of many people,” Weinstein says. “For seniors and people of all ages with disabilities, we can create living environments that maximize independent daily living activities, providing people of all ages the ability to function comfortably and safely in their own homes, and avoid the need to move to ‘special’ institutional facilities.”

Ed Sullivan is a writer on the subjects of healthcare and technology. He is based in Hermosa Beach, Calif. Sullivan graduated with a degree in journalism from Duquesne University. He has researched and written about healthcare, finance, real estate and high technologies for more than 25 years. His articles have appeared in hundreds of consumer and trade publications throughout the world.

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