UDCP: Elements of Universal Design/Home Modification

by Kacey Larsen
NARI recertification credits

There has been a significant increase in the age of the population commonly referred to as the “baby boomer” generation. As this generation ages, it will become increasingly harder for people to stay in their homes. Aging-in-place has been widely recognized by AARP, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines aging-in-place as “the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently and comfortably, regardless of age, income or ability level.” Remodelers need to understand how to make a home more accommodating as people age because they will become the trusted resource to make the appropriate home adjustments.

Another phenomenon is the increase in multigenerational housing needs as housing becomes less affordable. Family definitions are changing and, as the cost of single housing increases, more generations are moving back together, just as it was in years past. It will be the remodeler who is on top of changing trends in housing and the technologies available—not just electronics available but construction technologies—that will stay in step with their clients’ needs.

Designing homes and remodeling projects using the principle of universal design will help all generations live together in their homes comfortably, safely and with style for many years to come. Some things to remember: Not every client needs or wants what you have to sell, and not all features or principles need to be incorporated in every project.

Concepts of Universal Design

With thoughtful planning, we can create a home that will continue to work well for clients throughout their lives. Universal design is becoming more popular due to the increasing trend of universal remodeling.

Why is universal design important?

  • Families are sharing the responsibilities of home life.
  • How those responsibilities are carried out is evolving.
  • The average life expectancy continues to increase.
  • A typical family contains members of varying ages, sizes and abilities.
  • We should not be forced to move because a house is not adaptable to family change.

Accessible Design

Accessible generally means homes meet prescribed requirements for accessible housing. Mandatory requirements for accessible housing vary widely and are found in state, local and model building codes; in agency regulations such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s program 202 and 811, section 504; and the Fair Housing Amendments Act requirements. They are also found in standards such as the American National Standards Institute’s A 117.1 and the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards.

Accessible features in homes include items such as wide doors, sufficient clear floor space for wheelchairs, lower countertop segments, lever and loop type handles on hardware, seats at bathing fixtures, grab bars in bathrooms, knee spaces under sinks and counters, audible and visual signals, switches and controls in easily reached locations, entrances free of steps and stairs, an accessible route through the house, and pull-out features in cabinetry. Most “accessible” features are permanently fixed in place and very apparent.

Adaptable Design

Some accessible features such as knee spaces under sinks, lower counters and grab bars in bathrooms are obvious and change the way an accessible home looks and is used. An adaptable home has all the features a fixed accessible home has, but it allows some items to be omitted or concealed until needed and is better matched to individual needs when occupied. Standards for adaptable design have been incorporated in both ANSI and UFAS; these standards specify adaptability criteria, which will provide a level of full accessibility when adjustments are made.

In an adaptable home, wide doors, no steps, knee spaces, control and switch locations, grab bar reinforcement and other accessible features must be built in. Grab bars, for example, can be omitted and installed when needed. Because the necessary blocking is already provided, the bars can simply be screwed in place without opening the existing walls to install reinforcement. Knee spaces can be concealed by installing a removable base cabinet that can be unscrewed from adjacent cabinets and slipped out when needed, or by installing self-storing cabinet doors that fold and slide back. Countertops and closet rods can be placed on adjustable supports rather than fixed at lower heights as required for some wheelchair users.

Adaptable features are a marketing advantage for owners/occupants because they allow fully accessible homes to be suited to their users and marketable to anyone; it is not building inaccessible units on the promise they will be removed or remodeled for accessibility upon request. For this reason, it is best to think of adaptable features as those that can be adjusted in a short time without involving structural or finished material changes. |QR

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