Universal design

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What would happen if you broke a leg and had to hobble around on crutches? Stop and imagine: What level of independence can you expect? Can you navigate in your own home? Worse, what if you needed a wheelchair for a while? Can you get from the driveway into your home? Can you fit through the door into your bathroom? How will you use the toilet? Take a shower? Scramble an egg?

I had an up-close and personal encounter with such obstacles when my own sweet mother quickly lost strength and mobility in the last year of her life. First, she needed a cane. Then a walker. Finally a wheelchair. We struggled together to cope with the obstacles in her way. I quickly learned that my own home was inadequate to the challenge. We were frustrated and dismayed.

That experience was incentive for me to complete coursework and earn my Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) designation from the National Association of Home Builders. I learned a lot.

What is “aging-in-place” exactly? If you are like the majority of Americans, you want to continue living at home in a familiar environment throughout your maturing years. Aging-in-place means living in your home safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age or ability level. It addresses the need to remodel existing homes, and to design new homes, so people can age in place and not have to move to assisted living facilities as they age. Since the vast majority of homes we live in are not well designed for this, a new movement in residential construction has sprung up to meet this new consumer demand.

When homeowners consider the cost of moving to an assisted living facility, they often decide it’s far more economical to retrofit their existing homes. They might widen the bathroom door, install safety bars and a roll-in shower, for example. There are remodelers who specialize in this kind of retrofit, and our hat’s off to them.

Doing these specialized retrofits is not a core business for Solluna Builders. Instead, we focus on building new homes. Now few new homeowners come to us needing an accessible home, at least not today. But we all know circumstances change, right? That’s why we advocate for universal design when planning and designing a new home. What is universal design? Let’s back up and talk about the four categories of design for accessibility so this will make sense.

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. A key component here is the market appeal of the home and the integration of universal features into the overall home scheme. Done well, universal design becomes a virtually invisible element of a home. Of course, few homes or home features will always meet everyone’s needs. To meet the requirements of a particular household member (whether at first occupancy or due to accident, illness, or aging), there will always be a need for customized, accessibility features or assistive technology to bridge the gap. Meanwhile, let’s not go out of our way to design homes that create unnecessary obstacles from the get-go. For example, let’s make sure doors to bathrooms are wide enough. Everyone benefits when we build walk-in showers, choose lever door handles instead of knobs, add handrails at steps and porches, and install adequate lighting at entrances.

Adaptable is a design concept that addresses problems of individual differences and changes in capability over time. Examples of some simple things: Add wall blocking between the studs for future grab bars, install conduit for future special wiring, and place light switches low on the wall.

Accessible design accommodates the needs of individuals with specific disabilities, especially at kitchen, bathrooms, and thresholds. These needs get technical and specific -- doorway clearances, knee space, and the like -- and there’s plenty of detailed resources available that provide guidelines for designers, builders, and homeowners.

Visitable refers to a minimum level of accessibility that will allow a person using a wheelchair basic access to the ground floor of a home.

Ours is an aging population. Even if you don't have special needs for your home today, it doesn't hurt to think ahead.