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Why Universal Design Makes Beautiful Sense When Renovating

Follow these smart design tips to age in place with style and comfort

Years ago, my widowed mother took a bad fall in her own driveway, breaking one arm and fracturing the other. After Mother got out of the hospital, my Aunt Mary moved in with her for several weeks to help her.

One day, after a week of sponge baths, Aunt Mary decided that Mother needed a good soaking in the tub. Mother got in just fine, settling into the warm, sudsy water while Aunt Mary bathed her.

The trouble began when Mother tried to get out of the tub. Neither Mother nor Aunt Mary had thought through the logistics of getting an adult without working arms back into a standing position. Well, the two women struggled and finally managed, and my mother did get out of the tub. The process took longer than it might have because — credit their senses of humor — they kept breaking into fits of laughter at the ridiculousness of the situation.

For millions of Americans, however, such a situation would be no laughing matter. These are people with permanent disabilities, who every day live in a world of obstacles and barriers that many of us don’t notice — unless, like my mother, an accident or illness forces them to rethink the basics.

And it doesn’t always take an accident. It can be the limitations and demands of an aging body that bring about this awareness. Or it can be the needs of a child or an elderly relative who has come to live with you.

Fortunately for all of us, savvy architects and designers have been rethinking the basics for the last few decades, devising design principles and strategies that accommodate the full range of human capability. This field of design is called Universal Design, and its goal is to create easy-to-access living and working spaces that, instead of screaming old-folks’ home, are appealing and stylish and comfortable for everyone, not just the severely disabled or ill among us.

Initially, accessibility awareness was a product of the ’60s, an era of protests on many fronts. Wheelchair users began their own disability-rights movement to bring attention to the day-to-day difficulties faced by citizens who live in a world of boundaries and barricades. Those early activists were successful, their efforts sparking federal accessible-housing policies that addressed the needs of Americans with severe disabilities — roughly 5 percent of the population, and in large part elderly.

As time went on, though, it became clear that the disabled population was as diverse in age, size and varying ability as the population in general. The old policies were too narrow, so new ideas emerged to address a broader range of challenges. How can homes be comfortable for people who are shorter than average or have limited grasping strength, may have intermittent difficulty walking or climbing, or periodic need for a chair or walker? What if visitors are barred because they can’t navigate exterior and/or interior access? And even if access isn’t an issue today, what about tomorrow?

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. It marked the beginning of a new era in architectual design, the latter commonly known as Universal or Inclusive Design.

The ADA rules set specific minimum standards, explains Seattle architect Karen Braitmayer, a longtime advocate of Universal Design and a lifelong wheelchair user. In 2010, President Barack Obama appointed her to the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Access Board.

“The goal of Universal Design is to create an environment that allows as many people as possible to use it, without any adaptation,” she says. “No one goes into a well-designed accessible room and says, ‘It’s accessible’; they look at the room and say, ‘What a good idea!’”

Connecticut-based kitchen and bath designer Mary Jo Peterson was an early advocate of accessible home design. A Certified Aging in Place Specialist and a Certified Active Adult Senior Housing Specialist, her work on universal design has gotten her inducted into the National Kitchen and Bath Association’s Hall of Fame.

“I want our homes to create a supportive environment,” she says. “They should be designed to accommodate us, rather than us having to accommodate the environment.”

Braitmayer couldn’t agree more: “How many families have small kids who’d like to sit at the kitchen counter and help mom?” she asks. “Humans start out little — it’s natural. Why not accommodate different sizes?”

More and more manufacturers have been jumping aboard this common-sense approach, which now includes a range of accessible products in their repertoires. From tubs, showers and slip-resistant surfaces, to easy-to-operate plumbing fixtures and cabinetry, the products blend into the overall beauty of the collection, thanks to the expertise of the product designers.

“Families usually include such a variety of people,” says  Diana Schrage, senior interior designer for the Kohler Design Center. “We come in different sizes, we have different degrees of strength — and there’s nothing wrong with that. Instead, it’s up to us, as designers, to prove that we’re not going to compromise aesthetics for function.”

If you’re thinking of building new or remodeling, all experts agree that it’s important to get the basic architecture in place first. You never know who might visit your home, or what needs your home may have to address for present and future residents. Here are some basics fixes they recommend:

  • Reinforce the walls around the tub, shower and toilet to accommodate grab bars that you might install in the future.
  • Include a bathroom on the main level. A full-bath is preferable.
  • Make hallways at least 42-inches wide. A typical 3-foot-wide hallway may not accommodate a wheelchair. The wider hallway will look light and spacious.
  • Make doorways 32 to 36 inches wide.
  • Install outlets and switches so they can be reached from wheelchair-height, about two to four feet from the floor level.
  • Create at least one entry into your home that has no steps.
  • Making thresholds no higher than ¼-inch with sloped edges or, better, nonexistent.

“When you do these basics,” Schrage says, “you’re making some rock-solid decisions that won’t limit your future resale market to one type of buyer — you’ll expand it to include just about everyone.”

Still, Peterson notes, there are those who resist the concept of Universal Design, holding on to old notions about institutional style. For these people, she says, the idea gains ground when they think in terms of accommodating others instead of themselves. “It’s human nature to want to take care of those we love, so you’re more likely to want to help a loved one than yourself.”

But get over your mental hurdle.

“Don’t think of inclusive design in terms of ‘I need it,’” Peterson says. “Think of it as ‘I deserve it’ — and you do.”

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