Design for the evolution of life

by Kacey Larsen

Dave Fox, which operates in Columbus, Ohio, does not have a universal design arm of its design-build and remodeling business; instead, it is part of everything it does. Bryce Jacob, CR, UDCP, vice president, describes the company’s process as “universally designing universal.” The company consciously rebels against the notion that universal design is only for the elderly or handicapped, preferring to define it as “designs, space and products that every member of the family can use to the greatest extent possible through the entire duration of life,” Jacob explains.
The analogy Jacob uses to explain his company’s viewpoint is the addition of wheels to luggage. Although people were capable of carrying bags before wheels were added, this simple design addition now means that the young, elderly or any multitasking individuals can move through their travels more easily.
“That is essentially what we’re trying to do in the home; we’re trying to put the wheels on the luggage,” Jacob says. “We’re trying to look at a home and say ‘how do we look at where the family is in life and how will the design accommodate the way the family lives today, tomorrow and well into the future?’”
The Dave Fox design process begins with asking questions. “So many times the remodeler asks the question, ‘What do you want to have done in the space’ versus what we ask: ‘Why do you want to do that?’” Jacob explains. “We’ve taught our team to look at the family as a stage in life.”
One question Jacob and others at Dave Fox strive to get an to answer is: What changed in life that makes the potential client want to remodel now? “They might have wanted to remodel their kitchen and might not have had money, or the kids are finally off to college,” Jacob says. “That’s a great opportunity for me to talk about what’s next in life, and should we design this space to look at the cycle of life. Let’s talk about function instead of painted vs. stained cabinets – that will come later.”
Although many middle-aged clients may rebel against the term universal design due to associating the term with grab bars and wheelchair ramps, Jacob says that he prefers to lay all options out so the client and he can rule things out together; he would rather have too much information than the client come back and ask why an idea was never addressed. An example he gives is the installation of the blocking for grab bars in a bathroom during a remodel. This is done so, if down the road, the client wants them installed the the entire bathroom won’t need to be redone at that time.
“If we’re building with universal design from the beginning, it doesn’t have to look institutional. We can build it to accommodate every user at every stage with every physical ability regardless of their age, and it’s not just easier for someone to use down the road,” Jacob says. “It’s not like you change your wheels on the luggage just because you’re a different size, shape or physical ability. It is the same wheel.”
Another question Jacob likes is to ask potential clients is whether they would have extended family or people who would visit that may need or appreciate certain universal design elements. For example, he recommends removing steps from an entryway, whether to a front door or garage, for those who may have a hard time with steps today or down the road.  Everyone working at Dave Fox is comfortable designing kitchens, bathrooms and additions and incorporating long term planning and “smart design,” as Jacob calls universal design, into those designs. 
“You just have to ask different questions, which is all it boils down to, and, quite frankly, it’s more fun because you get people realizing you’re asking completely different questions than all the other contractors or remodelers. It shows that you care,” Jacob says. “If you can provoke thought in a consumer, then they are yours; they want you to be their contractor. I’m not perfect at it, and it’s not like I have a 100 percent closing rate. Incorporating universal design into [company culture] means learning how to reshape the way you do business, but you don’t have to change much – you just have to ask different questions.”

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