Universal Design Is For Everyone

by kbetz@solagroup.com

Homeowners sometimes desire design elements because they recognize those features are smart and make life easier, but they don’t necessarily realize what they’re looking at may fall under the definition of universal design, says Bryce Jacob, CR, UDCP, CAPS, vice president with Dave Fox Design Build Remodelers, Columbus, Ohio.

He says the same is true for smart-home technologies that make life easier for all occupants regardless of their age or abilities.

That is, in fact, part of Jacob’s inclusive definition of the term universal design. “I think an accurate description of universal design is ‘homes, spaces and products designed so users can enjoy them to the greatest extent possible regardless of their age, size or physical capabilities through the duration of their lives,’” he says.

To help clients understand the concept, Jacob asks them to describe the luggage they use when traveling. “Does it have wheels?” he asks, and then explains suitcase makers don’t put rollers on their products just for handicapped or disabled people but to make it easier for everyone to transport their baggage. “What we’re doing in homes is something as basic as putting wheels on luggage,” he says.

Universal design, by this definition, is much more inclusive than terms such as aging in place or handicapped accessible. “Aging in place is a very specific segment of universal design, just as smart-home technology is an aspect of universal design that looks at how you use technology to improve the space for the entire family,” Jacob says.

Perhaps to a lesser extent than aging in place, universal design nevertheless elicits negative responses from homeowners. “I don’t want grab bars, and I don’t want to have a wheelchair, so leave me alone; I don’t want that stuff,” is a common reaction Jacob must overcome when talking with clients.

Jacob sees a shift taking place in which universal design is becoming mainstream and even expected. “In every home being designed and remodeled right now, a lot of the products may be universally designed whether you know it or not,” he says.

How does technology fit into universal design? Jacob notes the growing prevalence of electronic or infrared-activated faucets in public places fits into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but says they are gaining popularity in homes. Not only do they have a sanitary benefit, but they can be operated by anyone from a child to a teenager or from an adult to a senior citizen.

Window treatments are being automated, too, Jacob says. He recalls power windows in automobiles were once considered a fad and a luxury, but are now standard. Remotely operated shades or blinds make sense when conventional pull cords are blocked by furniture or windows and perhaps skylights are otherwise not easily reachable regardless of the homeowners’ abilities, he says.

Another technology Jacob mentions is a refrigerator/oven that keeps raw food cold and cooks it later in the day to be ready when the homeowner arrives for dinner. “You can either set the timer or control it from your smartphone,” he explains. “The price of some of these things isn’t at a point where they’ve become mainstream yet, but I remember when flat screen TVs came out and people said the price was ridiculous. Now they’re everyday electronics.”

Speaking of TV, Jacob relates he, like others, considered refrigerators with small screens embedded in their doors to be a bit “goofy.” But, he concedes their usefulness: “You can pull up recipes, access the Internet and even keep lists and inventory the things in your refrigerator.”

Security and lighting systems are other technological developments making life easier for homeowners, Jacob says. A camera at the front door, for example, may be a convenience for an ambulatory person, or it may be a near necessity for a person who has difficulty getting up to go to the door. Lighting controls and dimmers are an amenity for some but take on more importance to someone whose eyes are experiencing temporary or permanent light sensitivity, for example.

“You can do a lot of things with technology in our homes now that some would say is not necessary for survival, but wheels on luggage are not necessary for you to survive either, nor are automatic windows in your car,” Jacob says. “Technology is not just for people who are disabled; it’s for everybody else, too.”

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