Our knees creak. Our backs ache. Our eyesight is fading. But we’re NOT old.

Our houses just need a little adjustment.

Universal design does just that – tweaking the house to spare those living there from frustration and embarrassment. It’s a building concept promoting discreet and sleek forms of step-free entry, wider pathways, no-glare lighting and easy-to-reach controls. And it has a growing number of advocates.

“It’s smart design, it looks good, and it’s easy to use,” said Leslie Marks, executive director of the National Association of Home Builders’ Seniors Housing Council in Washington.

Smart, good-looking, easy to use – and yet, not popular.

“A lot of people say, “We’re young, we’re never getting old, and we don’t want our houses to have big ugly grab bars and other things that look institutional,”‘ Marks said. “People just won’t buy it unless they’re already in a wheelchair.”

Given such attitudes, Marks said, “we’re working on teaching builders how to sell these features – the ease of use, how you feel with it, that it looks good.”

Like it or not, a burgeoning number of Americans could benefit from wider doorways, sloped inclines and levered doors.

“There are 63 million Americans 55 and older right now,” Marks said. “Between now and 2012, there will be another 3.4 million added per year.

“Most people won’t end up in a wheelchair, but they very well could end up with arthritis,” Marks said.

But who do you persuade first – the construction industry or its clientele?

The clientele, Marks said.

“Builders build what people demand,” Marks said. “There’s a need for education, so customers see how this helps you live.”

Diane Miller, executive director of Welcome, House Of Modification Examples Inc. (Welcome, HOME), a bed-and-breakfast and universal design demonstration home in Newburg, Wis., said her 18-acre living laboratory on a hill 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee has drawn thousands of visitors but few contractors since opening in 1998.

Those who chance upon Miller’s place often wind up converts. “The parents are touring the place, saying, “Hey, my mother-in-law could use something like this,”‘ Miller said. “The kids are happy playing – this is the first time they were able to reach the faucets.”

The most prized comment Miller hears? “This makes sense.”

“Take away the stigma, and what you’ve got is convenience,” Miller said.

Tom Hirsch, a registered architect with CedarMill Homes in Waukesha, Wis., and Dean Herriges, co-owner of Urban Herriges & Sons Inc. remodeling firm in Mukwonago, Wis., are among those who see universal design’s potential.

“I’m a baby boomer, with two back surgeries so far and limitations of reaching and lifting,” Hirsch said. “With my wife’s bad knees and my back problems, it’s only a matter of time before we’ll be forced to move” from their second-floor home.

“As I age and see our clients aging with the parents we have left, I’m seeing the need,” Herriges said.

Both men recently went on the stump for universal design – Hirsch to the 2004 Metropolitan Builders Association Building Science & Design Conference, and Herriges, president of Milwaukee/NARI Home Improvement Council, to his membership.

Among their main points:

• Older people have trouble gripping things, which makes door levers a better choice than knobs, and rocker light switches preferable to toggle switches.

• Standard 2-feet, 8-inch-wide doorways are too narrow for anyone with a stroller, wheelchair or an itch to move furniture.

• Stairways are stressful on the knees and hips, making graded house levels better than steps.

“It doesn’t have to look clunky and clumsy or out of place,” Herriges said. “Universal design is a sensitivity – to the height of cabinets, the depth of countertops and the location of light switches. It’s barrier-free, and it can be beautiful.”

Since 1977, Hirsch has been involved in what once was called handicapped-accessible projects. Back then, accessibility involved a steep construction surcharge. Now, he said, “it doesn’t drive up costs tremendously, if at all.”

CedarMill Homes offers universal design features on every house it builds. What do customers choose?

“The least conspicuous things, like light switches,” Hirsch said.

Time and the changes it wreaks on us all may change opinions, in Hirsch’s view.

“Aging baby boomers are a natural match for universal design,” he said. “Builders are going to wake up and say, “I want to go with this market.’ And why not? Why wouldn’t you want to maximize the number of people you sell to?”

By embracing universal design, the generation that turned the concept of aging on its head could do the same for construction, Hirsch thinks. As he put it: “More safely and conveniently maneuvering through a house, a little more room for clearance, a little bigger kitchen and bath – benefits to all people.”


Good universal design is:

Broadly useful

Flexible for individual preference and ability

Easy to understand

Designed for multiple uses

Tolerant of errors

Easy to approach, reach and use.

Source: North Carolina State University Center for Universal Design

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