Universal Design Features: Perfectly Concealed

By Michael T. Rose

Buyer awareness. That just may be the last major hurdle universal design has to overcome before it has truly "arrived" and is a force - a "must have" - in the booming boomer market.

We in the industry, certainly those of us who already market to the active seniors and boomers, know all about universal design. We understand its value and virtues, the flexibility it adds to our marketing and the peace of mind it can bring to potential homeowners. But what many of us are finding out is that a majority of our prospective homebuyers, even those who would benefit the most, don't know much about universal design. The reason, I believe, is simply because most prospective homebuyers are not at that point in their lives where they would be looking for universal design to fill their housing needs - unless of course, they are caring for aging parents. Quite frankly, why would they even begin thinking about universal design if it doesn't apply to them?

What's that slogan coined by AARP? "60 is the new 30?" Friends in their 40s, 50s, even their 60s have told me more that once, and I quote them here, "Middle age is 10 years older than I am." I have even used the phrase myself. With so many baby boomers living active lifestyles and unwilling to slow down, it's no wonder they aren't more aware of universal design.

But universal design is not about the now. It's about the future, quite possibly well into the future. So what's a builder or architect to do? How do you reach this market?

Add Pizzazz to Your Universal Design

You "wow" them, of course. In universal design, form and function can be accomplished with style and pizzazz. Especially since many of the features buyers want are part of, or can be part of, universal design concepts. My personal home has been considered a model for universal design by the AARP. It's even featured in the universal design section of the AARP Web site. It was built in 1990 before universal design was the formal architectural concept it is now. And I have to admit that the only future needs it was designed for was as a home that I could live in comfortably and conveniently for as long as I wanted to live there. Of course, it does incorporate most of the accessibility features common to universal design because I am in a wheelchair. My home has 14,000 square feet of living space, outdoor and indoor swimming pools, a movie theater and a heated driveway. The key to its success in a universal design sense is that all the accessibility features are so well incorporated, or as the AARP Web site points out, so perfectly concealed, that guests may not even be aware of the specialized areas. It's comfortable for me and it's comfortable for my guests.

So what kinds of features are we talking about, and are they transferable to production-style or semi-custom homes?

An Accessible Entry Can Have Curb Appeal

A ramp and curb appeal do not have to be mutually exclusive terms. When properly designed, a ramp can be close to invisible from the streetscape. My home incorporates a three-part entry ramp designed into the landscape. There is a step leading to my front door, too, but the ramp deftly bypasses it. Many guests aren't even aware of the ramp when they first visit my home.

If you don't want to incorporate a ramp in your homes, you can easily design and offer a stepless entry. I offer my customers both ramps and stepless entries. Just be sure that the front entry is accessible. Nothing is less appealing to a homeowner than to always have to enter his or her home through a back door.

The front door, naturally, should be wide enough to easily accommodate a wheelchair. Speaking of wide enough, I like plenty of room so the hallways in my home are four, five, even six feet wide.

Keep width in mind when designing the hallways for your homes. They won't have to be six feet wide, but they shouldn't be three feet wide either. More elbow room than that will be appreciated by your homebuyers, whether or not they are specifying universal design.

Make the Volume Dance

Coinciding with width is volume. I'm a big fan of volume, as are many prospective homeowners in the boomers market. My home has a variety of ceiling heights and styles in different rooms. There's a domed ceiling in the foyer, a tray ceiling with hidden lights in the bedroom, a pyramid ceiling in my library and a 20-foot ceiling in the family room. Just about every room in the main floor living area is a different height and incorporates a different ceiling style.

In years past, sunken living rooms and step-down dens or family rooms created that sense of volume and movement. No longer. Buyers today want level floors. Yet they want that sense of movement, too. That's where volume comes into play. The variety in room heights creates the illusion of movement while maintaining a level floor. You certainly don't have to incorporate as much variety in your homes as I did in mine, but do create some variety because that is what the market wants.

One thing I'm finding homebuyers in this market no longer want, though, is grand u-shaped stairways. Nowadays, buyers want the stairs concealed, which is also compatible with universal design. In my home, the stairs leading to the upstairs bedrooms are off to the side. The ones leading downstairs to the game and billiard area and movie theater are off another hallway. I also have a hidden elevator large enough for my wheelchair.

All the flooring in my home is hard surface flooring with area rugs scattered throughout to add warmth. throughout the house with area rugs. Hard surfaces are much easier for maneuvering a wheelchair than is cut pile carpeting. It's a universal design "must have," but it's also a feature that more homeowners are requesting.

Some Bathroom Dimensions to Be Aware of

You don't necessarily have to put grab bars or rails in the bathrooms. Just plan for them.

As for bathtubs, the general market is slowly moving away from spa tubs, and that's a good thing for universal design. From my perspective, a normal-depth tub is easier to get in and out of and much more convenient than a deeper one. My tub also has a ledge around it that is of wheelchair height and wide enough for me to transfer from wheelchair to the tub. A must when incorporating universal design as well as an attractive convenience.

I'll have to admit that in my home I indulged myself by installing what I call a "drive-through" shower. It's equipped with multiple shower heads and body sprays and has shower openings on both ends so I can wheel through - much like a car wash -whenever I want to shower.

Such an elaborate shower may not be a practical feature for most universal design homes. But in general, upscale homebuyers are trending away from two-person tubs and toward two-person showers, which is perfect for universal design. You see, more and more upscale buyers want their showers equipped with such luxuries as shower seats, multiple shower heads and body sprays, and no-threshold openings. Just perfect for universal design.

I also have installed a custom vanity in my bathroom with enough leg room beneath it so I can comfortably use my wheelchair.

A Kitchen Fit for the Owner

Believe it or not, I did nothing special to the kitchen cabinets. The reason is simple. Before my injury, I was very tall, 6-foot-4. And even though I'm in a wheelchair, I'm still tall. I have a long reach and have no trouble reaching the upper cabinets.

There's a small lesson here. The handicapped community is as diverse as the community in general. Some are tall, some are short. Some are heavy, some are thin. Whether or not they are in a wheelchair or require other mobility assistance. So when incorporating universal design features, make sure the features can comfortably accommodate the family buying the home. One size does not fit all.

A few other "must haves" for universal design can easily just be part of the luxury package for upscale homes. Instead of doorknobs, use lever door handles. They are easier to operate and much more practical. Besides, there are enough choices out there to satisfy most buyers.

And do away with 30-inch doors and 24-inch closet doors. You don't have to go overboard, 36-inch doors are wide enough and add a touch of luxury.

These are all features in my home that can easily be incorporated in homes selling for $500,000 or $5 million. They are universal design features that make living easier. But they are also luxury design features that many buyers want and I incorporate many of them in the custom homes I build. Luxury features that serve universal design needs. I'd call that a breakthrough in buyer awareness.

A Touch of Rose

I do have to admit that there are some features in my home just for me. But even with these, it's amazing how technology is making accessible living more comfortable. Both my swimming pools incorporate hydraulic chair lifts - lifts powered by water pressure and not electricity - that I use to get into and out of the pools.

Because I love movies, I have built a small movie theater in my home with a mini-version of stadium seating and, of course, room for multiple wheelchairs.

In the lower level family room/activity room, I have also built a wet bar that can be lowered from its normal height to wheelchair height.

Because I'm somewhat of a technology geek, my home is fully automated and I have strategically place touch screens that allow me to operate house functions like lights, drapes and curtains, air temperature, water temperature, door locks, etc.

And because I have a sweet tooth, outside the movie theater I have a special refrigerator for my Diet Cokes and Diet Dr. Peppers and a candy counter at wheelchair height that lets me sneak a candy bar when my wife isn't looking.

Finally, I have what can affectionately be called a universal design poker table. I take winings from handicapped as well as non-handicapped players.

Last Revised: June 25, 2004