Accessible Design Gets Personal

When it comes to universal design, two clear yet seemingly opposite trends seem to be permeating the marketplace. The first is that universal design is becoming, well, more universal. Once a specialty niche, this area is becoming increasingly mainstream, as aging baby boomers plan for the future, and manufacturers and designers respond by creating stylish products and designs that truly are "universal."

However, at the same time, universal design, once seen as a sort of "one-size-fits-all-who-don't-fit-the-standard-size" niche, is now becoming more personalized, with designs and products that offer more flexibility to fit the unique needs of each user.

According to Brookfield, CT-based designer Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, CBD, a renowned universal design expert and K&BDN columnist, one noteworthy example of this is how universal design is seen in relation to the aging process. Peterson explains that, "We try to generalize what happens as we age, but that's not necessarily true. The idea we need more lighting as we age, well, that's [often] true, but not always. There are specific instances where [more lighting] might even be harmful."

The same is true of using a border to mark room entrances or countertop edges, she points out. While common knowledge suggests that this is helpful for people who are elderly and/or who might be suffering from impaired vision people who could benefit from having such "visual cues" in some cases, these borders can have the opposite effect. For example, she notes that these same types of borders are often used for containing people suffering from alzheimer's disease. And, sometimes the elderlyl find these borders disturbing, or may even be afraid of crossing them.

For this reason, Peterson notes, "we have to get more specific, get more adjustability" when thinking about universal design.

Gerard Ciccarello, CKD, CBD, and president of the Westbrook, CT-based Covenant Kitchens & Bath, Inc. agrees, noting that, "We really custom design products to meet clients' specific needs." In his NKBA Design Competition award winning kitchen, designed for a client with a disability, he personalized the design with "hinges and hardware that we knew would work [for his specific needs]. The hinges open to 180 degrees for better access. The faucet that we chose had a handle large enough for him to reach and grab and manipulate, while still remaining stylish."

Of course personalization is not the only hot trend in universal design right now. "Attention to clearances and widths of doorways is a trend I am seeing," notes Rebecca Lindquist, CKD, CBD, of the Duluth, MN-based Lindquist & Co.

"The inclusion of multiple workstations for efficiency is also important," Lindquist adds, noting that a seated workstation is a boon to the elderly, the infirm and those who tire easily. "Those areas, we take for granted with a different perspective."

Peterson agrees that work centers are a hot trend right now. As she states, "Work centers concentrated mini-spaces where you can do everything without moving now that's very universal."

Peterson also sees changes in technology as impacting the future of universal design, and notes, "I can have a screen in my kitchen so that when the phone rings, I can see if I want to answer it. From that screen, I can see if someone's at the door, I can turn the heat up or down, I can turn the lights onthis technology already exists."

Likewise, technology can help those who suffer from disabilities beyond just the physical. "If my client's needs have to do with cognitive abilities, maybe there are memory issues, [the client] can call and check to see if the coffee pot was left on. Existing technology can allow us to call and 'talk to' our appliances." However, while she notes that the technology is available, many times it is not utilized because there's not enough demand. "People don't know it exists, so there's no money put into taking it to market," she says.

Planning ahead is also a key issue in universal design, and one that is too often overlooked, according to many designers. Paula Kersten, CID, of the Traverse City, MI-based Paula Kersten Design notes, "I've done a couple of houses that are totally accessible. I push people toward things like that because I feel it is important. Not a whole lot of people think about it until something happens. Mobility is key."

Aesthetics are another important consideration. According to Phil McGuire, president of Kitchen & Bath World, Inc., in Albany, NY, "One concern is that [physically challenged] clients are very fearful of making changes that will change the aesthetics of the home for [future buyers]."
But even beyond resale value, McGuire believes that, "Most clients are very independent people and do not want to be catered to when it comes to that sort of thing. They do not want a very non-traditional looking space."

Ciccarello adds that, "The aesthetics of the products need to have as high an importance as the functioning. There's no reason why the two can't be blended together."

Bath trends
In the bathroom, Lindquist notes that, "The logical design of lighting and switches, cabinetry hardware and hard surfaces are crucial. You see more high polished material in the bathroom and high-polished flooring material and water don't mix.

"What we're doing routinely in our showers is making them comfortably sized for customers so that there is freedom of movement, and paying attention to the width of the door so if the person inside needs assistance another person can help," Lindquist continues. "We always have bench seating, safety grab rails and provide for safe shelving so that they are easy to reach. We almost always put in hand-held showers so a person can sit comfortably."

Kersten notes that, "I never put steps in the tub, ever. I prefer allowing the client to roll into showers instead of putting in a curb. I do a lot of tile in universally designed bathrooms, and I don't put any gloss. Floor heating is also good. The biggest thing would be the accessible shower. Hardly anyone takes baths anymore. I always use side lighting in bathrooms to help people to see as they get older."
"Lighting in a shower is extremely important," Lindquist agrees, adding that, "The height of vanities is important, as well."

Hot products
While grab bars, non-slip flooring, barrier-free shower system and easy-to-manipulate faucets and hardware are generally seen in universally designed kitchens and baths, many designers favor specific products for designing accessibly.

Lindquist notes that, "If you look at Fisher & Paykel's dishwasher drawers, they certainly improve accessibility. They are quite innovative. I have seen an increase of drawers in refrigeration. The accessibility of a refrigerator is very important.

Peterson also cites the Fisher Paykel dishwashers that "can be put right at the height I need it at, and that [technology] is not around the corner, that's here now." Likewise, she sees integrated refrigeration like the Sub-Zero 700 series, which allows more flexible placement of refrigeration in locations that are more readily accessible to users with different needs, as being a boon to those who need greater accessibility. She adds that the challenge now is that "we have to bring it from very high end to the mainstream."

Lindquist adds that, "We've seen more manufacturers coming out with faucetry that is designed to be installed in the stovetop to avoid filling pots and carrying them across the kitchen. Kohler's PRO CookCenter is a clever idea that it is outfitted with a faucet and you can cook, boil and steam with it. It is a sink with a heating element and it comes with a set of special cookware. You turn a drain and the water drains out, therefore you don't have to carry a large pot of boiling water. That can have a huge advantage for someone with a disability. I think that's pretty revolutionary."

In the bathroom, Lindquist states "The Kohler high toilets are probably a true product-specific product. I think we are going to see more multi-functional, ready-made shower units coming in the market [and] tubs that integrate seating in them.

McGuire agrees that, "The Kohler toilets are getting taller and more comfortable," making them a good choice for accessible design, and he adds that, in the kitchen, "We are seeing more sinks that can protrude beyond the kitchen cabinet."

McGuire further notes that, when it comes to accessible design, "Bidets have always been popular. We have done well with the seats that adapt a regular toilet to the bidet. That is a pretty revolutionary item. It basically takes two items and converts them into one." KBDN