Accessible Design Gets Personal

by WOHe

When it comes to universal design, two clear yet seemingly opposite
trends seem to be permeating the marketplace. The first is that
universal design is becoming, well, more universal. Once a
specialty niche, this area is becoming increasingly mainstream, as
aging baby boomers plan for the future, and manufacturers and
designers respond by creating stylish products and designs that
truly are “universal.”

However, at the same time, universal design, once seen as a sort
of “one-size-fits-all-who-don’t-fit-the-standard-size” niche, is
now becoming more personalized, with designs and products that
offer more flexibility to fit the unique needs of each user.

According to Brookfield, CT-based designer Mary Jo Peterson,
CKD, CBD, a renowned universal design expert and K&BDN
columnist, one noteworthy example of this is how universal design
is seen in relation to the aging process. Peterson explains that,
“We try to generalize what happens as we age, but that’s not
necessarily true. The idea we need more lighting as we age, well,
that’s [often] true, but not always. There are specific instances
where [more lighting] might even be harmful.”

The same is true of using a border to mark room entrances or
countertop edges, she points out. While common knowledge suggests
that this is helpful for people who are elderly and/or who might be
suffering from impaired vision people who could benefit from having
such “visual cues” in some cases, these borders can have the
opposite effect. For example, she notes that these same types of
borders are often used for containing people suffering from
alzheimer’s disease. And, sometimes the elderlyl find these borders
disturbing, or may even be afraid of crossing them.

For this reason, Peterson notes, “we have to get more specific,
get more adjustability” when thinking about universal design.

Gerard Ciccarello, CKD, CBD, and president of the Westbrook,
CT-based Covenant Kitchens & Bath, Inc. agrees, noting that,
“We really custom design products to meet clients’ specific needs.”
In his NKBA Design Competition award winning kitchen, designed for
a client with a disability, he personalized the design with “hinges
and hardware that we knew would work [for his specific needs]. The
hinges open to 180 degrees for better access. The faucet that we
chose had a handle large enough for him to reach and grab and
manipulate, while still remaining stylish.”

Of course personalization is not the only hot trend in universal
design right now. “Attention to clearances and widths of doorways
is a trend I am seeing,” notes Rebecca Lindquist, CKD, CBD, of the
Duluth, MN-based Lindquist & Co.

“The inclusion of multiple workstations for efficiency is also
important,” Lindquist adds, noting that a seated workstation is a
boon to the elderly, the infirm and those who tire easily. “Those
areas, we take for granted with a different perspective.”

Peterson agrees that work centers are a hot trend right now. As
she states, “Work centers concentrated mini-spaces where you can do
everything without moving now that’s very universal.”

Peterson also sees changes in technology as impacting the future
of universal design, and notes, “I can have a screen in my kitchen
so that when the phone rings, I can see if I want to answer it.
From that screen, I can see if someone’s at the door, I can turn
the heat up or down, I can turn the lights onthis technology
already exists.”

Likewise, technology can help those who suffer from disabilities
beyond just the physical. “If my client’s needs have to do with
cognitive abilities, maybe there are memory issues, [the client]
can call and check to see if the coffee pot was left on. Existing
technology can allow us to call and ‘talk to’ our appliances.”
However, while she notes that the technology is available, many
times it is not utilized because there’s not enough demand. “People
don’t know it exists, so there’s no money put into taking it to
market,” she says.

Planning ahead is also a key issue in universal design, and one
that is too often overlooked, according to many designers. Paula
Kersten, CID, of the Traverse City, MI-based Paula Kersten Design
notes, “I’ve done a couple of houses that are totally accessible. I
push people toward things like that because I feel it is important.
Not a whole lot of people think about it until something happens.
Mobility is key.”

Aesthetics are another important consideration. According to
Phil McGuire, president of Kitchen & Bath World, Inc., in
Albany, NY, “One concern is that [physically challenged] clients
are very fearful of making changes that will change the aesthetics
of the home for [future buyers].”
But even beyond resale value, McGuire believes that, “Most clients
are very independent people and do not want to be catered to when
it comes to that sort of thing. They do not want a very
non-traditional looking space.”

Ciccarello adds that, “The aesthetics of the products need to
have as high an importance as the functioning. There’s no reason
why the two can’t be blended together.”

Bath trends
In the bathroom, Lindquist notes that, “The logical design of
lighting and switches, cabinetry hardware and hard surfaces are
crucial. You see more high polished material in the bathroom and
high-polished flooring material and water don’t mix.

“What we’re doing routinely in our showers is making them
comfortably sized for customers so that there is freedom of
movement, and paying attention to the width of the door so if the
person inside needs assistance another person can help,” Lindquist
continues. “We always have bench seating, safety grab rails and
provide for safe shelving so that they are easy to reach. We almost
always put in hand-held showers so a person can sit

Kersten notes that, “I never put steps in the tub, ever. I
prefer allowing the client to roll into showers instead of putting
in a curb. I do a lot of tile in universally designed bathrooms,
and I don’t put any gloss. Floor heating is also good. The biggest
thing would be the accessible shower. Hardly anyone takes baths
anymore. I always use side lighting in bathrooms to help people to
see as they get older.”
“Lighting in a shower is extremely important,” Lindquist agrees,
adding that, “The height of vanities is important, as well.”

Hot products
While grab bars, non-slip flooring, barrier-free shower system and
easy-to-manipulate faucets and hardware are generally seen in
universally designed kitchens and baths, many designers favor
specific products for designing accessibly.

Lindquist notes that, “If you look at Fisher & Paykel’s
dishwasher drawers, they certainly improve accessibility. They are
quite innovative. I have seen an increase of drawers in
refrigeration. The accessibility of a refrigerator is very

Peterson also cites the Fisher Paykel dishwashers that “can be
put right at the height I need it at, and that [technology] is not
around the corner, that’s here now.” Likewise, she sees integrated
refrigeration like the Sub-Zero 700 series, which allows more
flexible placement of refrigeration in locations that are more
readily accessible to users with different needs, as being a boon
to those who need greater accessibility. She adds that the
challenge now is that “we have to bring it from very high end to
the mainstream.”

Lindquist adds that, “We’ve seen more manufacturers coming out
with faucetry that is designed to be installed in the stovetop to
avoid filling pots and carrying them across the kitchen. Kohler’s
PRO CookCenter is a clever idea that it is outfitted with a faucet
and you can cook, boil and steam with it. It is a sink with a
heating element and it comes with a set of special cookware. You
turn a drain and the water drains out, therefore you don’t have to
carry a large pot of boiling water. That can have a huge advantage
for someone with a disability. I think that’s pretty

In the bathroom, Lindquist states “The Kohler high toilets are
probably a true product-specific product. I think we are going to
see more multi-functional, ready-made shower units coming in the
market [and] tubs that integrate seating in them.

McGuire agrees that, “The Kohler toilets are getting taller and
more comfortable,” making them a good choice for accessible design,
and he adds that, in the kitchen, “We are seeing more sinks that
can protrude beyond the kitchen cabinet.”

McGuire further notes that, when it comes to accessible design,
“Bidets have always been popular. We have done well with the seats
that adapt a regular toilet to the bidet. That is a pretty
revolutionary item. It basically takes two items and converts them
into one.” KBDN

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