Recently, I received a call from a client in Arizona, looking
for encouragement as he dealt with the anger and fear of legally
mandated guidelines relating to universal design or specifically,
visitability in new construction and major renovations. I later had
a conversation with an architect/colleague in Denver, who referred
to the Fair Housing Guidelines as an example of legislation passed
to “require us to do what we should have done voluntarily.”
I believe we can design responsively and reduce the need for
mandated guidelines. And, as my Denver colleague suggested, if we
don’t do this, perhaps we deserve to be “mandated to,” as this is
truly just good design.
A grass-roots movement promoting the concept of visitability is
spreading across the country. Simply put, visitability calls for
every new or remodeled home to include one-level entry (no steps or
thresholds) with doors and passageways generous enough to allow
wheelchair access throughout the first floor, including a bathroom.
Today, in at least a dozen states, towns and municipalities,
variations on this theme have been adopted as mandatory or
encouraged through incentives.
Over the years, the number of people who truly understand
universal design has grown. The number of people who try but don’t
actually incorporate the design concepts universally in their
spaces/products is also growing; so a little clarification seems in
order. Universal design is not simply a physical solution to a
medical challenge. Rather, it is the design of products and spaces
that anticipates future needs in the life span of a home and its
residents. It’s beautiful, and it eliminates problems at least
those caused by inconsiderate environments.
Universal design embraces young and old as possible users of a
space (or product), and it eliminates bias against them. Universal
design in our kitchens and baths is flexible and integral to the
personality and beauty of the space we live in.
I recently read a piece where a
prominent builder claimed that incorporating universal design into
every home was not a great idea because people prefer to buy new,
and staying in the same home would be like keeping an old car past
its prime. However, the AARP would disagree: More than 80% of its
surveyed members repeatedly confirm they want to stay at home. And
don’t mention it to the remodelers standing in line to take the
CAPS (Certified Aging in Place Specialist) training being offered
by the NAHB Remodeling Council. Rather than moving from a home when
the kitchen range needs replacing, how about converting to a
cooktop and building an oven into the nearby tall pantry or broom
closet at a height that eliminates bending? And while you’re at it,
convert the space that’s below the cooktop to rolling storage so
that you might have the choice to sit or stand when cooking.
Another common objection is that universal design is too
expensive. In fact, the kitchen and the bathroom are two spaces
where this statement is rarely true. Whether designed with custom
or stock products, kitchens and baths are always customized to suit
the people who will use them. Incorporating flexibility and support
for possible changes in the users over the life of the home is
simply one more criteria.
For example, converting a standard tub to an oversized shower
might decrease the cost of new construction, and designing that
shower to incorporate a place to sit and a rail for support can be
fairly inexpensive. Where the tub is a priority, organizing the
bathroom to allow for an extension of the deck at the head of the
tub, or selecting a prefab unit that includes this space, will
provide a resting place and safer entry/exit for anybody who uses
the tub, with minimal added cost. Having a grab bar costs more than
not having one, but it’s time we thought of grab bars as essential.
A sink is lovely, but without the faucet it’s not much use.
Similarly, the tub or shower without the grab baryou get the
Manufacturers are also demand driven, so if we wish to reduce
the cost of an item and increase its availability, we need to ask
The last argument against universal design is the toughest to
deal with: “I don’t need it. I’m not frail, I don’t want to
acknowledge my age, and besides, it won’t look good.” But unless
universal design is about beauty as well as function unless it
enhances the appearance of the space it is not good design.
Our unfortunate cultural fear of aging and of physical changes
is often at the heart of the argument. To this I say that universal
design helps to level the playing field and lessen the dependence
we fear. Sometimes, incorporating universal concepts into a kitchen
or bath requires more selling finesse than design skill. For some
homeowners, the no-threshold shower is simply a beautiful design
detail and the fact that it makes entry and exit safer and easier
is simply an added benefit. For others, the cleverness of a rolling
recycle bin must be pointed out, especially a bin that fits under
the cooktop and can be moved as needed, sometimes providing a
seated work area without a loss of storage space.
In the end, universal
design concepts can’t be reduced to a simple checklist. My office
frequently fields questions regarding interpretation of the numbers
in the books, codes, standards and guidelines. The problem with
rules and numbers is that they give a finite answer and don’t teach
us how to think.
We need to think to design, not just meet written requirements.
For example, a raised dishwasher, which cuts down on bending and
improves access, is a great concept, but it can be used only when
it fits the overall design. At the end of a run of base cabinetry,
it can be wonderful, but a raised dishwasher in the middle of a
continuous work surface is not ideal. A good designer thrives on
throwing all the facets of a project the budget, the available
space and the existing conditions into a pot with the clients’
wishes and strategizing to create the best plan, not just the
meeting of requirements or