by Deena Maniscalchi, excerpted from The Springfield Union News
Have you ever noticed that most houses have been designed and built to comfortably suit the “average” American adult… a young, able-bodied, six-foot tall male. Realistically, statistics show that this does not describe the average home dweller. The result: a home where light switches are too high for children, electrical outlets too low for the arthritic, and doorknobs that are hard to turn when holding an armful of groceries.
Welcome to a new era in housing design – The Universal Designed Home, a residence that has been created to be usable by all family members, whether young or old, physically fit or challenged.
The term “universal design” was coined in the 1970’s by architect Ron Mace, director of the Center for Accessible Housing at North Carolina State University. As the country’s leading expert in accessible housing and a national leader of the disability movement, Mace was instrumental in developing milestone accessibility codes and standards for the state of North Carolina. Over the years, these codes have been adopted by many other states.
The Universal Designed Home Series is designed by Ron Mace and displayed by The Home Store of Whately, Mass.
“The important thing to realize about this home,” said Mace, “is that its features are not unique, not special. They are for everyone.” Indeed, they are “Homes for Life,” because they are suitable for the life span of most people.
A Universal Designed Home is not noticeably different from a typical home, on the inside or outside. “One would fit into any neighborhood,” said Andy Gianino, President of The Home Store. Universal features are generally standard building products or features that have been placed differently, selected carefully, or omitted. For example, level walks, entrances without steps, and wider doorways make it easy for everyone to approach and enter the home – a young child in a stroller, Mom or Dad with arms full of groceries, a wheelchair user, or the movers on moving day. This characteristic also gives them a high resale value.
“The reconfiguring of average, everyday elements of the home is revolutionary,” said Gianino. “Over generations, people of varying abilities and ages will live in a house. Unfortunately, traditional houses are ill-equipped to adapt to residents’ changing abilities and circumstances. The way most housing is built today,” he said, “people are often forced to make expensive renovations or move. Universal Design expands the useful life of the home. It gives a family long-term comfort, safety and stability.”
Several social, demographic and legal trends support the advent of a Universal Designed Home. It is estimated that between 36 and 80 million people in the United States have permanent physical or mental disabilities, and laws have been enacted to provide accessibility to public buildings constructed with government funds. Most people will suffer some sort of disability during their lifetime, be it the result of a difficult pregnancy, an accident, an illness, or the effects of normal aging. Just a few age-related impairments include reduced vision, hearing, mobility and manual dexterity, and restrictions caused by Alzheimer’s disease and heart problems.As Ken Dychtwald has reported in his landmark book, Age Wave, the Challenges and Opportunities of an Aging America, those over the age of 85 presently comprise the fastest growing segment of our population. By the year 2050 one out of four Americans will be over 65. Also relevant are the intergenerational and children’s rights movements which recognize the value of intergenerational experiences and give growing support to the roles, as well as needs, of children.
It is because of Gianino, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, that The Home Store was selected by the manufacturer as the exclusive New England builder for its Homes for Life series. When Ron Mace began working on the new series, he made it clear that he wanted only builders who were knowledgeable, caring and sensitive to all the issues inherent in Universal Design. “I’ve been a psychologist most of my professional life because I enjoy working with and helping people,” Gianino said. “I immediately saw this as an opportunity to provide better housing than I had ever been able to do before,” he explained.
The Home Store’s Universal Model Home in Whately is a beautiful as well as functional housing solution. Among the home’s amenities are decorative columns between the foyer and the living room, a gas fireplace with stone chimney, skylights in the kitchen and bath, and cedar-look exterior vinyl siding. Each room displays a different kind of wood and finish for the moldings, doors, and wainscoting.
As you approach The Home Store’s Universal Model, you find level walks, entrances without steps, and wider entry doorways to make it easier for everyone to enter and enjoy the home. Among the interior features are lever handles that make opening interior and exterior doors easy. Electrical switches, outlets and controls, as well as storage spaces, are located at heights reachable by everyone. Options include “touch” electric switches, audible and visual smoke alarms, and power-operated doors and windows.
Open floor plans and wider doors and hallways add flexibility in arrangement of furnishings, provide plenty of play space for children, afford easy maneuvering space for wheelchair and walker users, and lend a spacious, airy feel to every room. Floor surfaces are non-slip and easy to care for.
In the kitchen, variable counter heights and pull-out shelves allow the entire family to pitch in with meal preparation. Sink and cooktop areas with removable base cabinets create knee space under the counter when desired. Lever faucet handles aid ease of use.
The design of the Universal Series bathroom allows ample space for a wheelchair to maneuver or for a couple of tots to take a bath with the assistance of mom. Walls are reinforced to permit the inexpensive installation of grab bars if ever needed. Controls positioned nearer the outside of both shower and bath make it easy to turn on water and regulate temperature. A variety of bath and shower options are available, including a tub with fold-up seat, a tub with transfer surface (integrated seat), whirlpool tub and transfer (flush to floor) and showers of several sizes. As in the kitchen, vanity and sink areas have lever controls and may have knee space.
A wide range of available floor plans, exterior styles and finishes make it possible for The Home Store to accommodate the needs, aesthetic demands, and financial resources of virtually every homeowner. Gianino and his general contracting staff complete site preparation, sewage and water hook-ups, utility needs, and, of course, delivery and all stages of placement of the new home so that it is in “move-in” condition in about a month or two, depending on the scope of the project.
The Home Store also offers modular Universal Series additions, so if a homeowner’s bedrooms are all on the second floor, a Universal Series bedroom suite or apartment can be added. (see related article “The Joys and Pitfalls of Inter-generational Living: One Family’s Success Story”
“If you think about what the Universal Home concept is, you realize this is a product everyone can benefit from. The way most housing is built today, it forces people to remodel or move. A Universal Designed Home gives a family long-term comfort, safety and stability,” Gianino said.
As Ron Mace says, “When you get down to it, Universal Design is what we should be doing all the time. It’s just good design – it’s design for people.”