Universal Design: On the Tipping Point?

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If you don’t know about universal design yet — making homes more accessible to people of all ages, sizes and physical abilities — you will soon.

Perhaps it’s the growing cadre of baby boomers or the number of families trying to accommodate granny as well as young children, but in discussions about housing, the phrase “universal design” is trending. It represents a shift in the way we think about homes and in the way they are designed and built.

“If we hadn’t had the recession, universal design might be as popular as green,” says Karen Kassik, owner of Home Accessibilities in Anchorage, Alaska, who was also one of the judges of the National Association of Home Builders’ Best in American Living Awards competition. As the economy bounces back, Kassik expects universal design to become “more popular and trendier.”

What is universal design?

Universal design has been around for decades, but ongoing initiatives — from aging in place to accessible design — have left the industry and consumers confused about what the concept means. Basically, universal design implies homes or rooms that can accommodate the needs of a wide range of ages, body shapes and abilities. “The diversity of the general population is immense. What universal design does is provide home designs that are inviting and convenient for the broadest spectrum,” says Bill Owens, an Ohio builder and remodeler who wears many hats. Owens is a trainer for the National Association of Home Builders’ Aging-in-Place certification program, a certified aging-in-place specialist, and also CEO of Better Living Design, a new nonprofit that promotes universal design.

“People have historically equated universal design with accessibility, and it does improve access, but it’s not the same thing,” explains Mary Jo Peterson, a certified kitchen designer from Brookfield, Conn., who specializes in universal design and aging in place. Unlike accessible design, which is often done for a particular client with a particular need, universal design doesn’t solve a specific problem. Instead, it enables anyone to use a space. “Whatever your abilities, your size or your age,” Peterson adds.

“Universal design is just smart design,” says Kassik. “And it allows visitability where a person with challenges can come into your home and be comfortable.”

What are you doing to apply universal design to your own home?

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