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  • Writer's pictureTiffany Dill

Why Universal Design?

[Photo credit: Jon Tyson on Unsplash]

Help me with the math. The baby boomer population is without a doubt surging [according to AARP about 10,000 people turn 65 a day!] and in the U.S. we have an insufficient number of homes on the market that are suitable to live safely and comfortably, as we grow older. It has been reported that less than 5% of homes in the U.S. house have aging in place features. How many of us will live uncomfortably in an unsafe environment or simply face multiple challenges including getting into our own home, getting to our bedroom and bathroom, and more? With these statistics repeated all over the Internet in various articles and studies, I predict there will not only be a shortage of homes with accessible features but the surge in home modifications may increase as well. In my opinion, developers that have not jumped on the universal design bandwagon are missing their mark.

Why should we care about Universal Designs?

Universal design (UD) principles were established by a group of product designers, architects, engineers, and environmental design researchers in 1997 at North Carolina State University. At the time of UD development, they cited the 2010 projections by the U.S. Census Bureau that the number of people who will be 65 and over will grow to almost 40 million. According to the July 2015 U.S. Census Bureau report, the number of 65 and older had already reached nearly 50 million. This data report projected that by the year 2060, the population of people 65 and older could reach as many as 98.2 million. Not only are people living longer and staying in the workforce longer, but a significant majority [or as reported by the AARP, nearly 80% at age 50 and older] are wanting to remain in their current home [2018 Home and Community Preferences: A National Survey of Adults Age 18-Plus]. In addition, with reported slower growth in the younger population and babies born each year, there will be more people at retirement age (78 million 65 and older) than the younger population (76.7 million under the age of 18) by 2035.

In 1997, the NC State group were already highlighting the need to build with UD features and make buildings / homes usable by most people without the need for specialization and adaptation. In addition, they highlighted the economic benefits and how integrating UD features in new builds will save costs later. According to their study report on user-friendly housing with a sample of 83 homes and 112 existing houses, they found that it is cost effective to install universal features in all new housing rather than retrofitting homes in the future. In fact, they cited the 2011 Branz Report which stated that integrating these features at the design and construction phase has been estimated to be 30 times less expensive than trying to modify a home later [Branz 2011 Lifetime Housing Report].

Integrating UD into new homes and buildings is not just making the spaces more accessible for more people but as you can see, it can allow you to enjoy the space while requiring less effort to function in the environment. The UD features go beyond ADA designs where codes are applied for public places to meet certain standards that are most often thought of for wheelchair users. Universal design features benefit many people across the lifespan from children to adults and people with and without a physical disability; it benefits those with hidden disabilities such as vision, hearing, and cognition.

Lately, I’ve been consulting on home modifications for families facing the unexpected and for grandparents wanting to age in place. When faced with the unexpected, we often return home to face many barriers we never imagined we’d face. If you’re building a new home or planning to build, you’re not only saving yourself money in the long run, but saving yourself from a little stress when faced with the unexpected or if you decide you want to live in your home forever. The cost to modify a home later is much more expensive than adding those features in the original design.

Who benefits from UD?

  • EVERYone!

  • A mom coming home from caesarian section who will be restricted from stairs. A zero-entry home and bedroom / bathroom on the main level will allow her to function comfortably without re-arranging the house to sleep on the first floor. This also applies to someone with non-weight bearing restrictions after an injury or surgery to the ankles/knees/hips.

  • A retired couple who want to remain in their own home within their familiar community so they enjoy entertaining family and hosting gatherings for kids and grandkids.

  • A young man newly diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis which will impact his ability to walk as he matures. A flare-up or exacerbation brings on extreme fatigue making it difficult to walk and maintain balance.

  • A child with autism who is sensitive to noise and lighting. A home can provide quiet rooms as well as softer or natural lighting. Space and support may be necessary if the youngster prefers sensory equipment to start or end the day or who simply needs a calm environment with low sensory stimulation.

  • A mother / grandmother coming home after being treated for Guillain–Barré syndrome with general weakness and limited mobility. Lever style door handles, faucets, walk-in shower, wider hallways and doorways will allow her to perform her daily tasks without feeling restricted to one room, thereby reducing feelings of isolation.

  • Children grow! Simple things can be installed to accommodate growing children such as a removable shower head on a glide.

  • Make room for pets and think ergonomics. Dog showers at waist height make bathing less straining on the back. In addition, it’s a multipurpose station that can be used to wash muddy boots and tools.

As you can see, many people benefit from UD features whether they’re faced with the unexpected that is temporary, progressive, or permanent. Sometimes, UD features are hardly even noticed because it makes using products or spaces easier! If building a new home, at least save yourself some stress in the future and consider designing a bedroom/bathroom on the main level, having at least one zero-step entry, a walk-in shower, wider hallways/doorways, lever style doors/handles, and open spaces.

Now you know why I call my specialty “proactive designing.” As occupational therapists, we think ahead, plan ahead, and problem solve to improve function. Universal design will require less effort to use products or maneuver in your space.

If modifying your existing home, there are ways to make living in your home easier and more enjoyable. Contact Blue Day 2 Designs for a consultation or ask any questions.

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