What You Must Know Before You Build

Suppose that first-time homebuyers call your business -- they are ready to build a new home. They have studied plans and have decided on a Universal Design home. No problem, you think. Then they add the fact that the wife has beginning-stage Multiple Sclerosis and they would like the home designed for this diagnosis. your heart stops, fear sets in, and then the project goes south.

This is not and will not be a unique situation. The need for basic medical understanding for contractors will only increase due to the ever-increasing, internet savvy, and aging-in-place population. Don't be left behind.

Universal Design history began after WWII as veterans returned home with permanent disabilities. Architects tried to design new homes for these disabled veterans, but results were unattractive and drew attention to the vets' disabilities. The times have now changed. The knowledge base, design base, and technology/medical base are in place to design a beautiful, free flowing residence that will incorporate the need or needs of the occupant without being visually unattractive.

What is Universal Design?

The definitions of Universal Design (UD) are wordy and institutional, but the following definition is the most direct: "UD considers human needs and abilities throughout the buyers' lifespan." (HUD, Residential Design and Universal Design, June 1996.) The definition is simple and to the point. Contractors often get caught up in word games trying to explain UD and lose the customer and the sale before it has even started. UD, simply put, is making life easier and safer in the design of home settings. It fits all customers. But how do they justify the additional cost to an Internet-oriented society? Medical understanding will be the missing link.

Here are a few important facts and figures about Universal Design:

• One in four people in the united States is 50 or older.

• In the next 25 years, Americans age 50 and over will increase by 47 million to 115 million.

• 84 percent of the baby boomers insist they will stay in their homes during their golden years.

• Baby boomers see retirement as a transition, not a termination.

• by 2050, 79 Million people will be 65 or older.

• Projected average life span by 2050 will be 82 years of age.

And, here are some additional facts to help explain the focus on this age group:

• The net worth of this age group is five times greater than the average net worth of all U.S. citizens.

• An estimated trillion dollars in inheritance is currently being handed down to the baby boom generation, and this phenomenon will continue to happen for the next several years. As a builder, why not capitalize on this?

with today's tightening housing market, all contractors must create a niche for themselves, UD could be the niche for you, and the more knowledge you have, the better the chances for increasing your sales percentage and thus, your profit margin.

The missing Link

Most contractors are educated only on the building/design side of UD; however, their knowledge of why may be limited. My personal background is in the medical field; therefore, my understanding of Why UD is enhanced and driven by this medical experience. Being able to discuss with the client in a professional proactive dialog the long-term benefits of UD, while incorporating basic medical knowledge, can provide amazing and positive results for the customer.

Medical understanding aids contractors dramatically when dealing with physically challenged customers. The contractor can listen to their needs and their long-term prognosis and design or modify a home around that need.

For example, during a recent continuing education course, the class realized how important basic medical knowledge can be in the decision making process. The class broke up into groups to read and discuss different case studies. After a lengthy discussion and specific input on medical issues surrounding the family of study, our group agreed on a plan. There was no short- or long-term modification that would aid or eliminate the barriers in the existing home setting. The plan of action was to bring in a case manager or social agency and discuss outside-the-home possibilities with the family. This provides a positive proactive solution for both the contractor and customer family, something that we must always consider when dealing with special needs customers.

Medical Facts

Below are some facts that will help educate you on the medical aspects of some of your special needs customers.

• Women account for 58 percent of the population age 65 and older and 70 percent of the 85 and over population.

• The average length of stay in a nursing home for a man in 18 months; for women it is 48 months.

• Sixty-two percent of people 45 and over report that parents, a spouse, or other family members have difficulty with walking, negotiating stairs, getting in and out of bed or chairs, use a cane, walker, wheelchair, or electronic chair.

• Falls result in approximately 360,000 hip fractures per year, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons in 2000

• Four percent do not survive an initial fall or surgery.

• One in four will die in the first year after a fall (87,500 people).

• Forty percent must move into a long term care facility. (Remember, according to the facts above, this is usually a death sentence for men.)

• The ever increasing cost of a nursing home stay is financially devastating to most families.

• Unintentional injury is the sixth leading cause of death in the home for people age 65 and over.

The bathroom is the leading site of injury in the home and is the number-one room for hip fractures to occur (at 80 percent). Wouldn't it be great to create a proactive mindset and design to help reduce this percentage?

Unfortunately, there will always be injuries, and UD will not take that away. However, knowing the hazards of each specific room and what type of injuries or problems are likely in those environments will only enhance your proactive presentation to the customer.

A Look at the Real Population

Being able to better understand the aging process and the demands that are placed on other customers' environments will also set your business apart from your competition. Read each of these bullet points and take a moment to picture the challenges  associated with them.

• A new mother with baby in arms - what are the challenges in ahome setting?

• Parents of a child with the diagnosis of brittle bone disease.

• Short-term and long-term use of crutches.

• A 35-year-old woman with rheumatoid arthritis.

• A seven-year-old paraplegic. A 52-year-old paraplegic. What are the different needs between the two examples?

• An average couple aging-in-place.

• A five-foot tall woman using an ADA toilet and ADA guideline grab bar. Is this always appropriate?

• A retired couple wanting to build their vacation home.

These are everyday examples of the human population and the daily physical questions/challenges they deal with in a home setting. Are you ready as a contractor to design a UD home and answer these type of questions?

Do you know the number-one complant of older adults in their homes and in public settings? Poor lighting. This is also an area where understanding of aging can play a pivotal role in making a sale. At the age of 40, the average human eye requires twice the amount of light for the same acuity as at age 20. For each 20 years of age, this requirement will double. Again, the more basic medical understanding acquired, the greater the opportunity for profit for your business. The opportunities are endless with this missing link.

Evaluating the Opportunities

By now you may be asking, is building UD really worth the hassle? Let's break it down.

• The building market is tightening which creates opportunities for niche marketing.

• The population is growing older everyday.

• A trillion dollar turnover is happening in the baby boomer population as you are reading this.

• Credit hours for continuing education for the building professions are increasing, providing you with an opportunity to distinguish yourself from your competition.

• Internet-savvy clients will do their research before they come to you.

Obtaining the required knowledge to serve this niche market is not a difficult task Turn to resources such as community colleges, vocational programming, internet learning, web sites, and medical lectures or seminars.

Building a Team of Professionals

Any building professional can gain the basic medical knowledge to serve this niche, but you must realize your medical limitations. This is where creating a team can be extremely beneficial in increasing your UD market share resulting in greater profit, visibility, and knowledge.

How do you create a team? Consider your local hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, home health agencies, medical colleges, physical/occupational therapy programs, or local medical support organizations, as well as local interior design programs and designers as part of your team. This will create a network of qualified professionals to aid you in conquering and completely the UD market. once you begin to understand that the residential building and the medical world can work hand in hand, your doors of opportunity will open wide.

Once you have gained the knowledge and formed your team, spread the word through speaking engagements to local real estate organizations, by writing articles for local, regional, and national media, or by having your company highlighted in different media.

In review, UD was originally designed for wounded WWII veterans returning home from war, but the technology was not yet in synch with residential architecture. Now with the appropriate modern technology at our disposal, all residential building from this date on should incorporate some Universal Design methodology. Many of the homes that are being built and sold as "older-adult-friendly" or as UD are wall dressings olny. Take the extra step and educate yourself and your business. Latch on to the missing link.

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