The 'Boom' in Universal Design

If you've ever pushed a baby in a stroller, used crutches for a sprained ankle or lugged heavy grocery bags, you know stairs are not your friend. And if you're like most people, you'll become less and less fond of stairs as you age.

The same goes for bending over to unload the dishwasher and squatting to reach that roasting pan way back in the bottom cabinet. And forget the bathroom, it's the most dangerous room in the house. That's assuming you stay mobile and healthy as the years fly by.


But, as we've done all our lives, Baby Boomers are changing the way things are done, just because there are do darn many of us to deal with. We're even making our mark on aging. Especially aging, and by extension, we're improving the lives of anyone with physical limitations. 

Unlike earlier generations - the few who lived long enough to become elderly - Boomers aren't going gently to nursing homes to live out our golden years. We're staying put as long as we can.

That brings us to Universal Design, the concept that your environment should adapt to you, not the other way around. Universal Design isn't about unsightly grab bars and separate, stigmatizing wheelchair entrances. It's about planning a home that works for everybody at every age at just about every ability. It's about "aging in place," as architects and builders call it.

It's about single-level living with no-step entrances, walk-in (or roll-in) showers, wide doorways with no thresholds, door handles instead of door knobs, higher dishwashers and commodes and lower counters.

"Universal Design strives to be a broad-spectrum solution that helps everyone, not just people with disabilities, "said Paul Walton, owner of Positive Environments LLC. "Moreover, it recognizes the importance of how things look."

If you plan for aging in place when you build, you'll save time and money. Incorporating accessibility up front adds 1 to 3 percent to building cost. "But if you have to retrofit, you're looking at a much higher percentage of cost, because you're going in and tearing out and redoing."

When accessibility feartures are factored in up front, they're much less likely to have that sore-thumb look and impracticality of wheelchair ramps that zigzag seven or eight times from street to entrance.

When Universal Design is done up front, "changes seem natural - almost unintentional - when lifespan is considered, suggesting that the home matures in its role as shelter, aging in place," said Walton, senior vice president of the Johnson City Homebuilders Association.

Walton - a former recreational therapist, certified aging-in-place (CAPS) specialist and CAPS instructor for National Association of Home Builders - believes the Tri-Cities could become a mecca for retirees and a hot spot for accessible homes. "The older population is internet savvy, and they know what Universal Design is, they know the positives of it, and they'll be asking for it," said Walton.

It all comes down to thinking about the future and behaving proactively, he said.

"With 'green' building being the big buzz now, the really neat thing is green building and CAPS certification and Universal Design can be a perfect marriage," Walton said.

"If you're going to build green and be thinking about ecosystem, why not think about yourself and being able to stay in your home for a prolonged period. Design it up front, and it's also going to help resale," he said. "I'll put a house that's Universal Design up against a house identical to it but not Universal Design, and I'll guarantee you the Universal Design home will sell before the regular home."

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