Universal Design Why Ever Not?

Recently, I received a call from a client in Arizona, looking for encouragement as he dealt with the anger and fear of legally mandated guidelines relating to universal design or specifically, visitability in new construction and major renovations. I later had a conversation with an architect/colleague in Denver, who referred to the Fair Housing Guidelines as an example of legislation passed to "require us to do what we should have done voluntarily."

I believe we can design responsively and reduce the need for mandated guidelines. And, as my Denver colleague suggested, if we don't do this, perhaps we deserve to be "mandated to," as this is truly just good design.

A grass-roots movement promoting the concept of visitability is spreading across the country. Simply put, visitability calls for every new or remodeled home to include one-level entry (no steps or thresholds) with doors and passageways generous enough to allow wheelchair access throughout the first floor, including a bathroom. Today, in at least a dozen states, towns and municipalities, variations on this theme have been adopted as mandatory or encouraged through incentives.

Over the years, the number of people who truly understand universal design has grown. The number of people who try but don't actually incorporate the design concepts universally in their spaces/products is also growing; so a little clarification seems in order. Universal design is not simply a physical solution to a medical challenge. Rather, it is the design of products and spaces that anticipates future needs in the life span of a home and its residents. It's beautiful, and it eliminates problems at least those caused by inconsiderate environments.
Universal design embraces young and old as possible users of a space (or product), and it eliminates bias against them. Universal design in our kitchens and baths is flexible and integral to the personality and beauty of the space we live in.

Aging Safely
I recently read a piece where a prominent builder claimed that incorporating universal design into every home was not a great idea because people prefer to buy new, and staying in the same home would be like keeping an old car past its prime. However, the AARP would disagree: More than 80% of its surveyed members repeatedly confirm they want to stay at home. And don't mention it to the remodelers standing in line to take the CAPS (Certified Aging in Place Specialist) training being offered by the NAHB Remodeling Council. Rather than moving from a home when the kitchen range needs replacing, how about converting to a cooktop and building an oven into the nearby tall pantry or broom closet at a height that eliminates bending? And while you're at it, convert the space that's below the cooktop to rolling storage so that you might have the choice to sit or stand when cooking.

Another common objection is that universal design is too expensive. In fact, the kitchen and the bathroom are two spaces where this statement is rarely true. Whether designed with custom or stock products, kitchens and baths are always customized to suit the people who will use them. Incorporating flexibility and support for possible changes in the users over the life of the home is simply one more criteria.

For example, converting a standard tub to an oversized shower might decrease the cost of new construction, and designing that shower to incorporate a place to sit and a rail for support can be fairly inexpensive. Where the tub is a priority, organizing the bathroom to allow for an extension of the deck at the head of the tub, or selecting a prefab unit that includes this space, will provide a resting place and safer entry/exit for anybody who uses the tub, with minimal added cost. Having a grab bar costs more than not having one, but it's time we thought of grab bars as essential. A sink is lovely, but without the faucet it's not much use. Similarly, the tub or shower without the grab baryou get the picture.

Manufacturers are also demand driven, so if we wish to reduce the cost of an item and increase its availability, we need to ask for it.

The last argument against universal design is the toughest to deal with: "I don't need it. I'm not frail, I don't want to acknowledge my age, and besides, it won't look good." But unless universal design is about beauty as well as function unless it enhances the appearance of the space it is not good design.

Our unfortunate cultural fear of aging and of physical changes is often at the heart of the argument. To this I say that universal design helps to level the playing field and lessen the dependence we fear. Sometimes, incorporating universal concepts into a kitchen or bath requires more selling finesse than design skill. For some homeowners, the no-threshold shower is simply a beautiful design detail and the fact that it makes entry and exit safer and easier is simply an added benefit. For others, the cleverness of a rolling recycle bin must be pointed out, especially a bin that fits under the cooktop and can be moved as needed, sometimes providing a seated work area without a loss of storage space.

Thinking Universal
In the end, universal design concepts can't be reduced to a simple checklist. My office frequently fields questions regarding interpretation of the numbers in the books, codes, standards and guidelines. The problem with rules and numbers is that they give a finite answer and don't teach us how to think.

We need to think to design, not just meet written requirements. For example, a raised dishwasher, which cuts down on bending and improves access, is a great concept, but it can be used only when it fits the overall design. At the end of a run of base cabinetry, it can be wonderful, but a raised dishwasher in the middle of a continuous work surface is not ideal. A good designer thrives on throwing all the facets of a project the budget, the available space and the existing conditions into a pot with the clients' wishes and strategizing to create the best plan, not just the meeting of requirements or guidelines.

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