Universal Design Remodelers Baltimore MD
Glen Burnie, MD
Home Remodeling Information
Homes, much like the human body, need to be fit and flexible to provide the best possible living conditions. When they are not completely fit and even slightly inflexible, they can limit residents just like an unhealthy body might. Most houses are not as physically fit as people think they are. And few homeowners understand the benefits of home flexibility, even though they live daily with the disadvantages of inflexible home design. These days, universal design is opening the door to lifelong comfort in any home.
Think about one of the key rooms in a house: the kitchen. Are you tired of bending, lugging and stooping your way through the kitchen? Did you know that you can design a kitchen that adapts to you and your family? Although each of us has a unique profile of height, age, abilities, strengths, weaknesses and preferences, most kitchens are designed to fit a standard person. With this type of design, a shorter person reaches too much, and a taller person bends too much. As a result, many of us struggle to reach or operate sink fixtures, cabinets and appliances.
Now designers, builders and manufacturers are producing homes and products that fit the needs of real people needs that will change over time. The universal-design trend is just beginning to come into its own, first coming on the scene as a response to building design requirements set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act during the early 1990s. Some of the products and features, which may have at first produced giggles and raised eyebrows, are becoming more and more sought-after by all people with or without disabilities.
A convenient pull-out counter beneath a built-in oven to provide easy transfer of dishes
A rolling cart to move around the kitchen and assist in food preparation, serving and cleanup
A 9-inch-high kickplate to elevate the dishwasher, which reduces bending and improves access for the mobility-challenged
An adjustable-height sink that raises and lowers at the push of a button, and is loaded with easy-access features
Roll-out shelves that make it easier to see and reach items stored in lower cabinets
Swiveling cabinet doors under the cooktop that fold out of the way, providing valuable knee space for someone in a wheelchair or someone who wants to sit down at that location
A contrasting tile border to aid those with limited eyesight while adding visual appeal
A raised front-loading washer and dryer set that makes doing laundry easier for everyone
Everyone is the key word. GE Appliances, one of the leaders in universally designed products, says virtually everyone can benefit from a kitchen with these features because it not only accommodates, but it adapts as well. Imagine returning home with a broken leg or ankle or after knee surgery to a universal-design kitchen that is more accommodating to your temporary use of a wheelchair or crutches. Or what if an aged parent or other relative moves in? They would be able to fall right into the flow of things in a universally designed home.
This welcome setting in the kitchen does not need to cost a lot of money, according to GE. Many universal-design ideas can be employed at no added cost, such as:
Specifying handles on cabinets in place of knobs
Selecting appliances with universal-design features
Choosing faucets with single-lever handles and sinks with shallow bowls
Opting for smooth-surface flooring
For minimal added cost, the company said the kitchen can be designed to include varied counter heights, extra space for wheelchairs near appliances, heatproof countertops and additional lighting. Cabinets shown in the GE universal-design kitchen at http://www.geappliances.com (click on Universal Design) are either standard or semicustom pieces supplied by several different cabinet manufacturers.
Virtually any kitchen size can incorporate universal-design features, according to GE. In terms of floor space, however, the company said to plan for a minimum of 30 to 48 inches in front of each appliance and work surface, and 42- to 48-inch-wide aisles to make the kitchen universally accessible. If an island is included in your design, the company said to make sure that it doesnt impede access to any part of the kitchen or impair workflow, and that it is large enough to be truly useful.
All of these features noted by GE and provided by other companies are not just for newly constructed homes. Homeowners who haven't even thought about remodeling their kitchen in the past five to 10 years are in for a pleasant surprise, according to AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, While you've been lifting, stretching, bending and stooping every time you cook a meal, kitchen designers have been working to create kitchens where practically every gadget and appliance is within easy reach. Stoves and ovens, for years an inseparable duo, can now be purchased separately and installed at more convenient heights. Cabinets are easier to reach and organize than ever; dishwashers are moving off the floor; and freezers are coming down from above the refrigerator, all to make life in the kitchen more of a pleasure and less of an Olympic sport.
Just like kitchens, bathrooms can present homeowners with many physical challenges, regardless of a person's age. As AARP notes, It's backbreaking work for a mother to bathe a young child. And its equally difficult for an older person with mobility problems to get in and out of a bathtub. Incorporating universal-design features can help you tame your bathroom and make it work for you.
For some people, the bathroom can be an obstacle to independent living. It doesn't have to be that way, however. Making a few changes can make the difference between taking care of yourself in your own home or having to rely on others to meet your basic needs. For example:
A hand-held shower lets you divert water from your existing showerhead to one that you hold in your hand. These showerheads come with long hoses that let you bathe while sitting on a chair or bench.
Grab bars give you something to hold onto when getting in and out of the shower or tub, or using the toilet. Grab bars, once looking like something from a hospital or nursing home, now come in a variety of colors and styles to fit in well with any bathroom's dÃ©cor.
An elevated toilet is about 17 to 18 inches high, compared to the standard toilet, which measures 14 to 15 inches from the floor. Because they're higher, using an elevated toilet puts less stress on your legs, knees and back. That makes them a good choice for people who have trouble bending or sitting. They're also a good choice for tall people who might find using a standard toilet a bit uncomfortable.
Bathtubs with a built-in transfer bench can help anyone getting in or out of a bathtub. These bathtubs feature a wide shelf on which you can sit before getting into the tub. Caregivers or parents giving the evening bath to young children will also find these tubs easy to use and easy on their backs.
Those who prefer to sit while showering will find a fold-down shower seat to be very convenient. The shower seat attaches permanently to the shower wall and folds up when not in use. It's a perfect device for people who tire easily and can't stand while showering. Women will find it also comes in handy when shaving their legs.
More information can be found at http://www.aarp.org/universalhome/bathroom/home.html.
A third key area for universal design doors and doorways doesn't get much thought from homeowners, at least not until they stop working for them. For example, you probably didn't notice how narrow your front door was until the day the furniture store delivery person couldn't squeeze your new couch through it.
Most likely, the poor design of your round doorknobs didn't grab your attention until your last gardening day, when you couldn't turn them with your slippery, dirt-covered hands.
And who thinks twice about traditional door-locking systems? You probably won't until you break your arm or develop arthritis and discover that you no longer possess the hand strength to turn the key in your front-door lock.
Some suggestions for doors and doorways are:
Widen doorways and hallways to a minimum of 36 inches, and place doors so that there are 18 to 24 inches on the door handle side for space to maneuver while opening and closing doors.
Lower door thresholds to no more than 1/4 inch, or install mini-ramps or transition wedges.
Change doorknobs to lever door handles that operate easily with a push.
Check door locks to see that they are sturdy yet easy to operate. Consider installing a keyless locking system for maximum convenience.
Once people realize that these are part of a universal design, they usually respond favorably. A survey of visitors to a house in a Minnesota Parade of Homes is an example of a positive response. Margaret A. Christenson of Lifease ( http://www.lifease.com ) said she conducted the survey because little data is available on the public's awareness, desire and willingness to pay for universal design or accessible features. A typical survey respondent was a female (67 percent) between the ages of 31 and 45 (33 percent). The universal-design features in the house rated as most important, in order of magnitude, were:
Kitchen devices and modifications (95 percent)
Lever door handles (92 percent)
Nonslip limestone floors (92 percent)
Bathroom features (89 percent)
Exterior ramp (88 percent)
Easy-to-reach light switches and raised outlets (87 percent)
Interactive screens to monitor home security (79 percent)
Elevator (76 percent)
For all universal-design features, less than 4 percent of the respondents rated these features as not important at all. Overall, a greater number of respondents (94 percent) thought it was important to include universal-design features in their homes upon retirement, and no respondents thought universal-design features should not be included in their retirement homes.
Most (77 percent) of the respondents did not have similar universal-design features in their current homes. And 52 percent had considered including universal-design features in their current homes, compared to 48 percent who had not. However, 85 percent would consider including universal-design features in a future home.
Forty-four percent of the respondents thought the features would increase the cost of the home by 7 to 10 percent, followed by 36 percent reporting a 4 to 6 percent increase. However, 81 percent reported universal-design features would also increase the resale value of the house.
Furthermore, many people were willing to pay the increased cost: 37 percent wouldn't mind a 1 to 3 percent increase in the total cost for a house with universal-design features, 42 percent a 7 to 10 percent increase, and 13 percent 7 to 10 percent.
The next best thing to touring an actual house, which hopefully will happen more often as an increasing number of builders get the message and consumers start asking more often about universal design, is a virtual tour provided by AARP at http://www.aarp.org/universalhomes/tour.html , including such examples as:
A tour of a house in Maryland. The tour is also available as a narrated RealVideo slideshow. Included is an interview with the owner, who discusses the way his home incorporates universal-design elements while maintaining a sense of style, livability and functionality.
A small house in San Francisco uses universal-design elements to maximize space and livability. In addition to the interactive iPIX tour, there is also a RealVideo slideshow and an interview with the owner.
A secluded house on a hill in Occidental, Calif., used what is called a subtle approach to universal design. The same two types of presentations and an interview with the owner are included.
An accessible kitchen and bathroom highlight a house in Saint Helena, Calif.
AARP and other organizations and companies are paying more attention to the concept of universal design because of those ever-present baby boomers, a large population group that began turning 55 in 2001. The needs and desires of this group will have a significant impact on housing design. Statistics from the National Association of Home Builders ( http://www.nahb.com ) about population projections over the next 20 years indicate that the 55 to 64 age segment will grow 76 percent, and the 65 and older segment will grow 52 percent. On the other hand, the 35- to 44-year-old segment will grow by only 5 percent, and the 25 to 34 segment will grow by 14 percent. In the middle is the 35 to 44 segment, which will decline by 9 percent.
Many or most of these baby boomers will not be moving into new houses where universal design can be incorporated from the start of construction. So there is a whole movement called home modification among some universities and government agencies to accommodate people in existing houses. According to an AARP housing survey, 83 percent of older Americans want to stay in their current homes for the rest of their lives.
Older Americans find their homes comfortable and convenient, and they feel secure and independent there, according to AARP. However, as people age, the design of their homes plays an increasingly important role in how they manage their daily activities. Homes that were perfectly convenient at age 55 can cause problems in later years, as diminishing physical abilities make daily routines more difficult, without some design modifications. So, the AARP said it is important to look at your home with a critical eye and use a checklist to identify problem areas in every part of your house ( http://www.aarp.org/universalhome/checklist.html ).
But money to pay for these changes so people can age in place can also be a problem for some older Americans. Besides paying out of pocket which is often difficult for someone living on a fixed income there are other options being discussed by the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association ( http://www.reversemortgage.org ). This association, in partnership with a diverse group of senior service organizations and businesses has convened a National Advisory Council on Aging in Place to encourage modifying home environments to make them safer and more comfortable as residents age. The association website provides plenty of information for discussion through links on its the site to product suppliers, consultants and research centers.
Now public awareness is beginning to shift from universal design in public buildings and multifamily units, which the ADA and Fair Housing Act have overseen and regulated, to single-family homes owned by individuals. The newest term in the single-family effort is visitability, which aims to make houses visitable to all types of people. This requires such features as at least one stepless entry and an accessible bathroom on the first floor. The NAHB supports voluntary visitability in a policy response to increasing interest by state and local governments to pass legislation on this subject by either requiring some accessible features for all single-family houses, or only for houses using public money.
Perceptive readers may be asking, If universal design is such a great idea, why is it the exception, rather than the rule? The complicated situation can be reduced to a concept of economics -- specifically supply and demand. In the universal-design context, that means that relatively few builders and architects are providing it and not many homeowners are asking for it. The change in this situation is a slow process, but it is worthwhile.
Dan McLeister is a freelance writer based in Carol Stream, Ill.