Adaptive Marketing

Once considered a hindrance to the value and marketability of homes, the idea of aging in place is now causing design professionals across the boards to rethink the way they remodel and build homes.

It's also causing a shift in their marketing plans. They're embracing, using and promoting design concepts that help clients age in place - specifically, Universal Design concepts.

However, if kitchen and bath dealers don't start recognizing that Universal Design is something they should be incorporating into their work and marketing to clients, they may lose out on a key demographic.

Demographic Strength

Consider this: by 2010, the U.S. population is expected to number 298 million, with Baby Boomers continuing to dominate the demographic landscape and influence housing trends. They already comprise almost one-third of the nation's population, with many planning to stay in homes built or remodeled to fit their needs.

According to the AARP survey "Fixing to Stay: a National Survey of Housing and Home Modification Issues"

Another AARP survey published in 2003 - "These Four Walls… Americans 45+ Talk about Home and Community" - found that 83% who own homes are not considering moving in the next five years.

Overall, the survey's gap analysis showed that Americans 45-plus feel that there are home features they consider more important than others. However, while only half of homeowners polled anticipate they will need to change their homes as they age, the survey found that many of their homes don't have some of the features they cited. And even fewer of their homes have the safety-related features they deem important

Given these findings and the growing Boomer segment, there's definitely a powerful marketing edge that can be gained by incorporating Universal Design features into new-build and remodeled homes.

Undiscovered Country

Indeed, experts agree this strong Boomer segment can be tapped by kitchen and bath dealers and designers through understanding and promoting Universal Design.

"There needs to be understanding that Universal Design can be marketed and sold to a broader audience, and that it doesn’t need to call attention to itself and can be integrated easily into the overall home," agrees Richard Duncan, MRP. As senior project manager for The Center of Universal Design, College of Design at the North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC, Duncan spoke on this topic at this year's K/BIS in Las Vegas.

"The best way to do this is to make it part of renovation, stressing the ease of use, convenience and safety for everyone in the house," he adds.

This is a segment that the Remodelors Council of the NAHB in Washington, DC has already identified as key.

Witness the Certified Aging in Place (CAPS) program, in place since 2002.

The Council developed CAPS with the help of the NAHB Research Center, NAHB Seniors Council and AARP to address the growing number of consumers who will soon require Universal Design modifications in their homes. "The program started at the right time, just as Boomers are becoming more accepting of the idea of modifying their homes to stay in them," notes Therese Crahan, the Council's executive director.

The program offers a three-pronged approach that includes how to work with and market to older adults - essentially marketing Universal Design.

"That portion happens on day one of the three-day program. You learn what makes them tick, how to reach out to them, how to work with them and the proper etiquette.

On day two, during the design portion, we go through a whole house, room by room, from kitchens and baths to storage areas and closets, and demonstrate ways to modify each room to ease physical limitations. The third day consists of a business management course AARP wanted for those who may not have taken a course in this elsewhere," says Dan Bawden, CAPS, CGR, GMB, and owner of Legal Eagle Contractors in Houston, TX.

He was instrumental in getting the program started, as was Mary Jo Peterson, renowned Universal Design expert, owner of Mary Jo Peterson, Inc. in Brookfield, CT and KBDN columnist.

While many of the roughly 600 CAPS-certified professionals are remodelers, a growing number are general contractors, designers, architects and even health care consultants. Thus, "if dealers and designers don't start marketing this now, they will face more competition that will come from remodelers and contractors who already have a leg up on this," asserts Mark Anderson, CAPS, owner Persona Kitchen & Bath Solutions in Wichita, KS.

Tapping Into The Market

To effectively market Universal Design to older adults, and other potential clients, dealers and designers must remember to stress the importance of being able to age in place comfortably, have older relatives visit with ease, and make living easier for young, old and everyone in between, regardless of their physical abilities.

They can also gain a competitive edge by offering suggestions that, when integrated into a remodel or new-build already in progress, can cost-effectively prepare a house for future modifications, and even increase the resale value.

However, dealers and designers must first understand what Universal Design is.

Ron Mace, who's also with The Center for Universal Design, explains it this way: "If you could separate barrier-free, Universal and assistive technology distinctly, they would look like this: assistive technology is devices and equipment we need to be functional in the environment; barrier-free, ADA and building codes are disability mandates, and Universal Design is design built for the environment and consumer products geared for a very broad definition of user… The reality is, however, that the three blend into each other."

This explanation was part of his presentation at Designing for the 21st Century III, the third international conference on Universal Design held in Rio de Janeiro December 2004.

Indeed, "'accessibility' and 'Universal Design' are not synonyms. Universal Design is about meeting the needs of people with limitations due to age or disability in ways that everyone finds desirable - for example, towel bars that are strong enough to be used as grab bars and kitchen surfaces at a variety of heights for standing or seated work," notes industrial designer Jim Mueller, owner of J.L. Mueller, Inc. in Chantilly, VA.

"I decided the best way to bring this value-added feature to the projects was to make it transparent," states Michael A. Thomas, FASID, CAPS, The DESIGN Collective Group, Inc. in Jupiter, FL. "And since, I've been providing curbless showers, better lighting, non-slip floors, multi-level counter heights, plywood backing behind the shower walls without even speaking the words 'Universal Design.'"

Other seamless design solutions include installing "a wall oven with a side-hinge door and knee space hidden by cabinet doors that fold back," says Duncan.

Anderson suggests building in extra space using false jack studs to allow a standard doorway to be opened to 36" without having to rework wiring in the future.

"There's also installing better lighting and flooring with a matte finish," adds Valerie Fletcher, executive director for Adaptive Environments, a Boston, MA-based non-profit that promotes Universal Design.

When broaching the subject with clients, Anderson suggests asking clients how long they intend to stay in their home, and whether or not they care for family members now or anticipate doing so in the future. "It gets the client to focus on others they care about, instead of themselves," he explains.

Effective Techniques

As for marketing techniques to help promote Universal Design, there are many that a kitchen and bath firm uses to market any expertise that would apply here.

For instance, "getting involved in the building community, in order to educate those who educate the client is essential," notes Holly Bloss, designer with Lifestyle Kitchen Studio in East Grand Rapids, MI. She points to Susan Bloss. "As a CKD and owner of Lifestyle, Susan is involved with NKBA as well as our local home builders association."

"The association has a lifetime design committee. We are planning a seminar for homeowners and one geared to builders, [since each] group has different marketing needs," says Susan Bloss. "I have also joined a guild which operates our regional rehabilitation hospital."

"Networking, as in all business, is key. Knowledgeable people from all aspects of building and remodeling help the public make informed decisions," continues Holly Bloss.

Gregory A. Miedema, CAPS, CGR, CGB, agrees. "We promote it everywhere we go, and network with as many as we can. For instance, we work with the local fair housing council and realtors in the community," says Miedema, president of Tucson, AZ-based Dakota Builders, Inc.

"I get called to do a lot of community presentations for local AARP chapters, Civic Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs and home shows. I use the 20- to 30-minute Microsoft PowerPoint CD presentation that all CAPS graduates receive, and tack on a question/answer period," adds Bawden. "I also leave clients with two business cards -– a regular one and a magnet -– that have all of my certifications, including CAPS."

Getting involved in show houses and demonstration homes is another good way to market Universal Design and a firm’s expertise in that arena.One such demo home is in Atlantic City, NJ, completed in 2002 by The Center for Universal Design in cooperation with AARP, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority of Atlantic City and the Atlantic City Planning Department.

If dealers and designers can't be involved in such projects, they can take clients to these homes to show them the concepts in action, pointing out their convenience and transparency of the homes' Universal Design features.

Duncan further suggests incorporating photos of Universally Designed kitchen and baths into a firm's portfolio. He says the same thing goes for client testimonials on the topic.

Thomas' firm takes a subtler approach: "In our initial conversations with clients, we let them know we have a special appreciation for Universal Design, but my staff no longer makes it a special deal. It has become a standard part of the projects."

Indeed, experts agree that while Universal Design is something that can be incorporated into a kitchen and bath firm's repertoire of design techniques and promoted as an expertise, it should not be confused with a specialty.

"[After all], Universal Design is just one more way to design for the individual client's space," concludes Holly Bloss.