Universal Design in Architecture

Much of the discussion surrounding the aging American population has centered on the issue of Universal Design and how it applies to residential remodeling. The Remodelors Council thought it a good idea for members to hear from a recognized expert on t...

May 31, 2001

Much of the discussion surrounding the aging American population has centered on the issue of Universal Design and how it applies to residential remodeling. The Remodelors Council thought it a good idea for members to hear from a recognized expert on the subject.

Universal Design is a concept that applies to the designing of any thing or any place that affects people. The term is now recognized and accepted internationally as a framework for good design. There are many theories regarding its basic principles. It does not address everyone’s abilities. Nothing can. But it does level the playing field for more people.
Universal Design in architectural and interior design addresses these issues:

  • Environmental barriers and their impact in society today

  • The growing change in our aging population and the increased survival of people with disabilities

  • The desire to age in place and remain independent

  • Safety, facility in use and understanding

  • Adaptability

  • Financial feasibility and affordability

  • Marketability

  • Profitability

    In America, we have the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Accessibility Guidelines. These are guidelines to ensure accessibility and adaptability for commercial buildings (ADA) and multifamily houses with four or more units (FHA). Although we do not have national guidelines for single-family homes, they are gradually being added to state building codes. Until changes in building guidelines are nationally adopted, techniques and methods used to introduce Universal Design depend on sensitivity, the demands of the consumer and creating a new paradigm for design.

    How can builders and remodelers incorporate Universal Design in their projects? By thinking in positive rather than negative terms, you can change your attitude and preconceptions of accessible design and help educate subcontractors, Realtors and consumers of its value and cost. Understanding that accessible features in a home add safety, resale value and the possibility of aging in place is a great marketing tool.

    Level entryways, for example, can be beautiful and offer the opportunity to create interesting walkways with landscaping. Wider doorways make it easier to move furniture in and out of the home. Larger, better and safer bathrooms address accident rates, which affect everyone, including household pets. The blocking of walls before putting up sheetrock ensures proper, secure future installations of grab bars in bathrooms, hallways and kitchens. Installing slip-resistant flooring lessens falls in hallways, bathrooms and kitchens. Pre-wiring for remote controls at doorways, windows and in security systems costs pennies when wiring a new home and offers the benefit of “smart” access. Stacked closets for future installations of elevators, lever door handles and rocker-style switches are just a few more features that can add the benefit of aging in place and adaptability to suit most anyone. And all of this is seamless in the design of the whole.

    What does this new design parameter mean to the builder and remodeler? A broader market, a new concept of aesthetics, all adding up to better profit. Addressing the reality of the baby boomer’s turning gray and having more of the wealth and expendable income, addressing the fact that more people with disabilities want out of nursing homes and desire independence, jobs and social integration can only add up to a larger market base and profit margin.

    The additional costs of these features are negligible when including them in new construction. Remodeling or retrofitting cost very often determines if a family member comes home or goes to a nursing facility. If you can do it right the first time, why not take advantage of it? In my practice of interior design, I find that more people are interested in living spaces that are functional, accessible, aesthetically appealing and easier to maintain. The first completely accessible house that I designed and had built was constructed in 1989, and it is still used as an example of good design. It was the first spec house that everyone could visit in our local home showcase. No one wanted to build it, finance it or knew how to market it. It was one of the first to sell, and I am still getting commissions from it.

    Broaden your horizons by broadening your parameters. Pay attention to the changing global statistics and start changing your floor plans. You are building the future landscape of homes, communities and cities. Do you really want to see a community of ramps when you could design and build beautiful landscapes? Your have a responsibility. Universal Design concepts can help you find the solutions to open your market base. Good design, better profits — everyone wins.

    More information, including contact information for Shirley Confino-Rehder, is available at www.univdesign.com.

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