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Coming of age: Universal design results in improved floor plans



When it first appeared, universal design was marketed as improving accessibility for older homeowners and people with physical challenges. Today, universal design has caught fire, igniting an energetic effort by builders, architects, remodelers, designers and manufacturers to provide fresh, creative possibilities for making homes easy to use and safe for people of all ages.

“Universal design is a concept that incorporates accommodations for any age range, making homes adaptive for as long as possible, regardless of any health-related changes that may arise through the years,” said Steve Crowdus, chair of the Remodelers Council of the St. Louis Home Builders Association.

While there’s no denying that universal design has appeal for aging adults, young families also are gravitating to universal design applications simply because it makes for  bright, open and well-planned living environments.

And, according to Crowdus, that’s the key – creating aesthetically pleasing spaces that do not call attention to the fact they are designed to accommodate a lack of mobility or other physical limitation.

Wider passageways, better baths

Ideally, entering a house, circulating from room to room and functioning in any room should be easy, efficient and barrier free. One way to ensure accessibility is to widen doors and, if necessary, hallways.

“Working within the existing footprint of the home, expanding doorways is an efficient and economical first step in universal design,” Crowdus said. “Moving walls in order to widen hallways can be a bit more complicated, but if updates are being made anyway it pays to consider such an expansion for the future.”

After all, Crowdus explained, “it is difficult for most people, regardless of their age, to look to the future and consider the accommodations that may be needed.” But he suggested that adding universal design elements ultimately makes a home more marketable.

One area that homeowners may deem as more challenging in terms of fusing beauty and safety is the powder room or bath. Not so, according to Crowdus, who suggested that bathroom improvements can be universally designed to improve functionality and still remain elegant.

“Adjustments to counter heights and mirror heights, or the installation of zero threshold showers so that there is nothing to step over, do not have to look institutional,” Crowdus insisted. “The products available today are attractive and often stealthy, such as grab bars that blend in with the wall décor.”

Smart home, safe home

Technology also is making universal design a more relevant concept for homeowners of all ages.

Crowdus pointed out that smarter homes make life easier, more convenient and provide peace of mind at the touch of a button.

Motorized drapes add a stylish enhancement to windows but the customized settings based on needs, such as blocking daylight, improving privacy and security, or simply making them easier to open and close, provide a universal design element beneficial for all. And, motion sensors can take light control to a whole new level, providing a lighted pathway through the home.

One option is motion-sensing light switches that contain a motion sensor in addition to a switch, but if those are not stylish enough, Crowdus says not to worry.

“Motion detection for lighting can be discreet and minimalized,” he  said.

Adaptive technology, such as motion-sensing light sockets and outlet plugs, is one option, while a home automation system, such as AT&T’s Digital Life and HomeSeer’s HomeTroller-SEL, is another. Home automation systems provide the convenience of controlling lights, thermostats or checking that the garage door is closed and the home is secure via the use of a smartphone, timers, and voice and motion sensors.

Planning for today and tomorrow

The National Association of Home Builders recommends homeowners consider universal design principles when making any home improvement.

Some suggestions include replacing door knobs with press and go lever-style handles; installing retractable towel rings so there is no need to rehang the towel after use; opting for touchless faucets, which improve sanitation and efficiency and frees hands while cooking; and installing keyless locks that make opening doors easier and safer.

“Universal design is on us and on us in a big way,” Crowdus said. “The key for any home improvement is return on investment. Homeowners that incorporate universal design features will increase the marketability of their home by making it appealing to the widest range of homebuyers possible.”

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