Homebuilders, Architects Offer Lessons in Universal Design

Incorporating even the most basic elements of universal design into the home you build today will pay off for homeowners in the future.

May 01, 2008

What Is Universal Design?

Model Home Provides Tangible Lessons, Valuable Contacts

Know the Lingo

Basic Universal Design Features That Won't Break the Budget

Proponents of universal design say that incorporating even the most basic elements of the concept into your projects will result in homes that are more comfortable, user-friendly and appealing to a much broader buyer market. So how do custom builders familiarize themselves and their clients with the positive benefits universal design features? The best way, experts agree, is to start by taking a close look at successful projects that have already been built. Networking is important, too, "particularly through programs offered by national organizations such as the NAHB where they can connect with others who are already doing what they are trying to do and who are willing to share the lessons they've learned along the way," says builder Jo Theunissen, current chair of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) 50+ Housing Council.

Designing and building a home to accommodate its owner's physical needs for today and into the future does not mean that it must have obvious entry ramps, sterile institutional bathrooms and unsightly wall-mounted grab bars, as the builders' stories below show. "When done well," says Theunissen, "universal design can be a completely invisible part of the home's design."

New Perspectives Drive Attitude Changes

Some of the building industry's strongest universal design advocates say they have been inspired

A well-executed universal design can include a wide hallway, barrier-free transitions between living areas, smooth flooring and easy-to-reach lighting controls. Photography by Laurin Trainer Photography.

either through their own personal experience coping with life-altering disabilities or by clients with special needs.

For Theunissen, who co-partners Howling Hammer Builders, a central Michigan design-build firm that specializes in custom homes for move-up and high-end buyers, the inspiration came after she had to address accessibility issues in her own home after injuring her back. Karl Keyes of Grampa's Homes in Bountiful, Utah — whose first universal design home received accolades from NAHB's Blake Smith of the joint selection committee of the NAHB/AARP 2007 Livable Communities Awards Program — has a son who has been disabled since birth and a business partner who developed multiple sclerosis.

Wayne Geurink, who is wheelchair-bound after suffering a catastrophic injury in a traffic collision in 1991, spearheaded the development of the Chairs & Cares Model Accessible Home in Wausau, Wis. It's one of the country's most ambitious projects to date to showcase the practical application of universal design features, products and manufacturers in a residential setting. And architect Todd Rosenblum, founder of Adaptive Architecture, headquartered in Spring Valley, N.Y., is a nationally recognized consultant and speaker on accessibility issues who first delved into the concept when challenged to design a home in Albany, N.Y., for a client who had been seriously injured in a workplace accident.

All say the time has come to design and build homes that are more in line with accommodating the immediate and future lifestyle requirements of the people who live in them.

"My experiences have opened my eyes to this whole other side of life," says Keyes, who has worked for more than 40 years in production residential and commercial construction in the Salt Lake City metropolitan area.

Theunissen agrees: "I suddenly realized that if I were to develop a long-term physical malady, I may have to make the decision to leave my home. This is something that other people have to face every day and that I had not really thought about before."

She sees this same attitude of acceptance in everyone who works for her firm, also the first certified green builder in Michigan's central region. "I've had lots of discussions with my guys about the merits of some elements of green building, but have never had a single trade or sub not immediately see the sense in any of the universal design features we are incorporating."

A Steadily Growing Market

Although Adaptive Architecture specializes in custom residential design, Rosenblum has also developed a niche clientele who seek him out for his expertise in accessible design. "My percentage of these types of projects varies from year to year, but on the whole I have seen a growing trend of people asking about universal design features. I believe that I have a personal responsibility to make my clients aware of the possibilities that are out there."

Theunissen agrees that builders should address lifestyle requirements with their clients. She avoids using the term universal in favor of easy living design. "We don't focus on building homes that are so accessible that they would be the equivalent of ADA compliant; instead, our goal is to build homes that are more comfortable and practical for how their owners want to use them."

Lewis Reeves, a custom builder headquartered in Norcross, Ga., constructs $2 million-plus homes and is currently co-developing an accessible model home in the Atlanta area. He extols the benefits of universal design. But Reeves is also pragmatic about how quickly the concept will be accepted by his peers and integrated into the business of building homes. Until the client challenges the builder to produce a certain kind of product, it won't get done, he says.

Geographic location plays an important role, says Rosenblum. "In areas where there is a proportionately larger aging population, such as in the South and Southwest, builders will be more willing to experiment with universal design because their clients want it."

"Universal design will, first and foremost, be most popular and most readily accepted by specialty-type age groups such as empty nesters and retirees because they have an immediate need for

A popular and practical amenity, today's residential elevator provides access to every level of a home and can also boost marketability and resale value later on, says the experts. Photography by Hawkins-Welwood Homes.

these types of features," agrees Reeves. "And this is what builders will respond to because they are ultimately driven by the needs and desires and desires of their customers. Whatever their customer base wants is what they are going to do.

"But the reality is that we all need to anticipate that we will need universal design features later on in our lives," he adds.

Convenience, Safety Important to Boomers

The aging baby boomer population will continue to be the market that drives how builders perceive universal design, say the experts.

According to the most recent report from the NAHB 50+ Housing Council, the 55-plus population will continue to increase by more than 2 percent every year over the next 7 years, reaching 85 million by 2014. The report also goes on to state that by the year 2012, the share of U.S. households age 55 or older will pass the 40 percent mark for the first time in history.

Universal design definitely makes sense for builders in empty nester or retiree markets who know who their primary clients are, says Rosenblum. "Baby boomers are getting older. Over the past 20 years I have seen a definite shift in home buyers asking for universal design features, and more and more builders are beginning to provide them. As its use becomes more widespread, the costs associated with it will continue to come down."

His advice to builders? "Re-evaluate the designs for the homes they already build looking for ways to improve accessibility," he says. He recommends custom builders work with their architect to make a percentage of stock plans feature universal design principles. "It just increases the markets they can reach."

Sell by Example

But it is not only home buyers with disabilities or those looking to age in place who recognize the practicality of universal design. Theunissen made this discovery almost by accident when a young couple with very young children purchased her first universal design spec-built home rather than the retirees she expected.

The home featured a full basement; zero-step threshold entry in the garage; a main-floor master bedroom and bathroom; and a kitchen designed with safety in mind, including a counter-height microwave oven, an elevated dishwasher and plenty of clearance around its center island.

"Through the design phase and our marketing materials we focused on the boomer buyer for this home, but it was a much younger buyer who immediately recognized the value of its design for her own family," she says. "We were completely surprised."

Keyes' first universal design-oriented residential project was a spec-built home in Lehi, Utah, that was completed in 2006. Not only did he rely on his past experience as a builder, he also solicited input from local real-estate agents on what features they thought buyers would appreciate. He invited them into the home throughout its construction to reinforce what it was that made this home different from the rest. It sold after he finished it.

Theunissen says that through experience she has learned two very valuable lessons: to be successful, universal design must be part of the upfront design process for a spec-built home, and it also has to be part of its tail-end marketing. "Your Realtor or sales person has to understand and appreciate what it is that you have given them to sell. And then they have to know how to sell those features to the customer."

Opt for Features with Broad Appeal

All project managers and designers at Dallas-based builder Hawkins-Welwood Homes are Certified Aging in Place Specialists, says the company's director of design, Steve Burke. "We want to be sure that our staff understands what the opportunities are for incorporating universal design features into a build-to-suit home so that they can pass this knowledge along to our clients."

Hawkins-Welwood builds everything from $300,000 townhomes to $4 million-plus custom-designed residences for high-end buyers in the Dallas area. The firm is also the region's largest spec builder.

"In a down market such as we are experiencing now," says Burke, "everyone is looking to cut costs. And the reality is that certain universal design features can add significantly to the cost of a home at the very same time when buyers are trying to stay under a specific price point."

In this economic climate — particularly when it comes to spec-built projects, says Burke — builders will avoid doing anything they perceive will drive up costs or make the home more difficult to sell.

Now may be exactly the right time, however, to consider including features that don't cost more money, but do increase the perceived value or future marketability of the home.

An elevator, for example, can add anywhere from $18,000 to $25,000 to the cost of a home. But designing that same home with stacked closets that can easily be converted into an elevator shaft may add pennies on the dollar or less while it increases its future value.

Hawkins-Welwood lead designer Stacey Brotemarkle lists a number of low- or no-cost universal

One of the most important features of a universally designed is that it has an accessable entrance that everyone can enter the home easily. Photography by Hawkins-Welwood Homes.

design features the company routinely incorporates into its projects (see sidebar below). Free Admission

Building homes with barrier-free entrances is an important element of universal design that may be affected by the project's location. In the South and Southwest, where the majority of homes feature slab-on-grade foundations, creating an aesthetically pleasing, no-step entrance into a home is more acceptable and not particularly difficult or costly.

In northern climates or situations where the home is built on a basement foundation, creating a barrier-free entry can be more challenging and sometimes more expensive, says Rosenblum, due to the necessity to design for water and snow infiltration issues and handling mechanicals such as water and sewer runs. His firm has developed a proprietary foundation design for a stepless entry for homes built on basement foundations.

Howling Hammer Builders, which includes a poured-wall, basement foundation with all of its homes, has also developed its own technique for creating barrier-free entrances.

"We had to put our heads together with our subcontractors to get it right, but in the end, it turned out to be pretty simple stuff," says Theunissen. She suggests that builders place the highest priority on having a zero-threshold entry in the home's garage, with access to the outdoor entertaining space being the next entry to address.

"In my opinion, having this type of entry at the front door is less important because this is the entrance that is least used by the homeowners themselves."

As more homes are built that demonstrate what universal design features can be incorporated into any new home without negatively affecting aesthetic appeal or amenities, the more receptive the rest of the building community will become to the concept, says Keyes. "Universal design needs a spokesman with a tremendous voice to educate the building community and the general public about the importance of building for the 'what ifs' in life."


What Is Universal Design?

Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. — Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University 


Model Home Provides Tangible Lessons, Valuable Contacts

The inspiration for the Chairs & Cares Model Accessible Home first came to Wayne Geurink, a retired insurance executive who became wheelchair bound after suffering injuries from an automobile accident, during his meetings with a spinal cord injury support group in 2001. One of the main topics, he says, was residential accessibility.

"I thought, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if there were a demonstration accessible home that could be used by everyone in the community to learn about accessible design and construction, and to actually see examples of what there is available?'" he says.

The idea took hold and through his efforts and support from the local community, community college, manufacturers, suppliers and a local commercial general contractor, a two-story, 4,600-square-foot home was completed in October 2007 and opened to the public.

The demonstration model home is located on the campus of Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, Wis., and is one of only a handful of similar projects in the country. It includes such features as windows with push-button, electronic openers; longer than standard manual cranks and oversized lever locks at the base of the window where they can be easily reached; exterior doors with flush-to-floor sills engineered into the door frame that ensure the level of the finished floor aligns with the threshold; pocketing interior doors; an elevator; and a wide range of safety and security features.

"The significance of this home for builders," says Geurink, "is that it will help them better understand what they can do to build homes with universal design features."

For more information about the project, visit www.choicesil.com.

Know the Lingo

Accessible homes meet state, local and model building codes that dictate standard dimensions and features such as door widths; clear space for wheelchair mobility, countertop heights; audible and visual signals; grab bars; and lower switches and higher outlets.

Adaptable design allows some features of a building to be changed to address the needs of an individual with a disability; a person encountering mobility limitations as he or she ages; or a person who encounters a life-changing illness or accident. To meet the definition of adaptable, the change must be able to be made quickly without the use of skilled labor and without changing the inherent structure of the materials.

Visitable homes are not only accessible to guests with disabilities visiting the homes of non-disabled hosts but to the future needs of the non-disabled residents as well. Access features essential to visitable homes are a zero-step entrance, accessible hallways and bathrooms with doors wide enough for a wheelchair user to enter. Such features accommodate guests with disabilities and will also make it possible for residents to adapt in the home should their needs change.


Basic Universal Design Features That Won't Break the Budget

Incorporating fundamental, no-cost or low-cost universal design features into new residential construction is limited only by a builder's imagination. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Develop floor plans that feature an open design with limited interior hallways
  • Use wider doors that provide a 32-inch, or preferably 34-inch, clear opening
  • Make interior hallways 36 inches wide or wider
  • Ensure there is a full bathroom with a roll-in, minimum 36-inch by 36-inch shower and a bedroom on the main floor
  • Specify comfort-height toilets and plan for additional clearance on either side of the toilet and sink
  • Create at least one, no-step entry into the home from the outdoors with a slope no greater than 1 in 12
  • Lower switch height for lighting and environmental controls in key rooms and raise the height of electrical outlets in those same rooms
  • Install bracing in bathroom, shower and tub walls so grab bars can be installed in the future
  • Use lever-style door hardware and strategically positioned "loop" handles on drawers and cabinets
  • Use rocker-style, illuminated light switches
  • Include elevated dishwashers; counter-height microwave ovens; easy-glide cabinetry hardware; and enhanced task lighting
  • Minimize use of carpeting and uneven floor changes in high traffic areas
  • Use pocket doors rather than swinging doors where possible
  • Opt for double or bi-fold doors for closets

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