Today’s homeowners are living longer, healthier lives, often with multiple generations sharing space under one roof. “Baby boomers are reaching retirement age, and they want to stay in their homes,” says Richard Hoffman of Specialty Builders Remodeling, www.specialty-builders.net. “It’s often far less expensive to modify an existing home to accommodate the owners’ needs than to move into a senior community.” This is why the concept of universal design is becoming increasingly popular in both new homes and remodeling projects.
Designing for all
Ron Mace, the founder of the universal design movement at the Center for Universal Design, officially created the term “universal design,” defining it as “the design of products and environments to be used by all people to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptations or specialized design.” To most remodelers and interior designers, this includes functional design and space planning as well as aesthetics. While the concept of universal design includes everyone, the term “aging in place,” focuses more specifically on the aging population. “Aging in place is the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently and comfortably, regardless of age, income or ability level,” says Michelle Nettles of MJN Associates Interiors, www.mjninteriors.com.
“Universal design has become so popular in homes because people want beautiful, convenient and welcoming environments to live in and entertain guests in,” says Pam Goldstein of Master Kitchen Bath Designer LLC, www.masterkitchenbathdesigner.com. “If their home does not allow for temporary disabilities (sports injuries, pregnancies, operations, etc.), it will not serve them throughout most of their life conveniently and comfortably.” Basically, homeowners should be able to go about their daily routines with no difficulty, and often, it only takes a few fairly simple modifications to make a home easier to manage for all ages and abilities.
From concept to reality
When creating a space with universal design in mind, there are several things that builders and designers will include:
• Wider hallways and doorways with low thresholds or step-less entry, so anyone can enter the home easily.
• Greater visibility throughout the home, including fewer walls to make it easier to navigate.
• Kitchen cabinets with customized configurations and features, including lower height and easy-to-grip handles or pocket doors.
• Roll-under sinks in the kitchen and appliances that are easy to reach.
• Bathrooms with curb-less—sometimes even door-less—showers or walk-in bathtubs.
“One of the most important aspects of universal design is good spatial planning,” Hoffman says. “Today’s open floor plans with large openings lend themselves well to universal design.” Of course, because the bathroom is often the smallest room in the house and potentially dangerous because of the risk of slipping, bathrooms are often the focus of modifications. “My number one thing with universal design is the discussion and debate about ‘zero entry’ showers with linear (flat) drains,” says Becky Sue Becker of Designs by BSB, www.designsbybsbs.com. “They are popular, and they make sense for aging-in-place, and they are practical, but logistics of every job site vary greatly.”
Windsong Properties creates homes with features that appeal to the 55+ crowd. Some of the standard features of their homes include:
• Zero-entry or curb-less showers with grab bars and detachable showerheads
• Vanities that are designed to sit underneath or roll underneath in a wheelchair
• Subtle ramps around the home for easy walking and rolling
• Wide hallways and doorways
A Safer Bathroom
Along with curb-less showers, other design elements often are used to make the bathroom a safe place:
• Shower seats, either built-in or fold-down, make showering easier, and adjustable-height grab bars and handles also are common.
• Hand showers make it easier to wash and rinse off.
• Elongated, comfort-height toilets are safer to use and often more attractive.
• A walk-in or elevated tub, such as Kohler’s Elevance Rising Wall Bath, is a good choice for creating easier access.
• Non-slip floor surfaces, such as matte tile, are important.
• A wall-mounted sink with space underneath can accommodate a wheelchair, scooter or walker.
• Plenty of lighting, including lights that come on automatically when you enter the room, enhance safety.
• Automatic faucets that come on without the need to turn a handle are great for those with arthritis or any kind of reduced dexterity. The new Dyson Airblade Tap will even dry your hands for you.
While all of these things are important in the bath, some also are important throughout the home, such as grab bars near seating, pocket doors that slide out of the way, lever handles that are easier to turn than conventional doorknobs, and good lighting everywhere, complete with easy-to-press flat light switches.
While it may seem like a lot of changes, most are very subtle, and you won’t even spot them at first glance. “Products designed for aging-in-place and universal design are not visibly different from their standard counterparts,” says Mike Shina of Windsong Properties, www.windsonglife.com. “The difference is design. They are designed for maximized use. Simple and inexpensive measures can be taken in the design and building process to ensure that the home can accommodate the future needs of its owners.”
Principles of Universal Design
The seven principals of universal design, which can be applied to both design and products, are:
equitable, flexible, simple, easily understood, tolerant of error, low effort, and size and space for approach and use
Source: Pam Goldstein, Master Kitchen Bath Designer LLC
While universal design is often thought of as a building concept, many products that you can pick up at the store also are made to be user-friendly for everyone. For example, choose phones with larger numbers or locks with keyless entry. For small kitchen tools, check out the OXO brand: Their products are designed to be easy to hold and use by everyone, from children to seniors.
While universal design principles can be incorporated into existing structures, they also can be part of an addition. This project, by HammerSmith Inc., www.hammersmith.net, included the addition of an accessible room to a very contemporary, “treehouse”-style home. “As you can see, accessible places do not have to look like a retirement home with ramps and grab bars everywhere,” says HammerSmith owner Warner McConaughey.
The split-level home had many steps, including a spiral staircase to the bedrooms. The addition allowed for a new side entrance that had a curb-less stone walk.
• The new space includes wide hallways, good lighting and a curb-less shower entry, as well as a large room.
• A barn door opens onto the main floor of the house so the homeowners can have easy access to the kitchen, living room, terraces and, most importantly, the wine cellar.
• While the room currently serves as a multipurpose room for special projects and for the grandkids to play in, it is ready for the day they need to convert it to their accessible bedroom.
• Ironically, since the room has been built, it has served as a bedroom for several months as the homeowners each recovered from separate accidents that left them unable to walk.