Home design traditionally has been based on standards that address the wants and needs of regular people most likely to live in a given type of residence.
But as baby boomers age, and issues such as compromised eyesight and dexterity become apparent, there's a lot more thought given to concepts that make physical tasks easier. Design modifications are being made both in architecture and products that are better suited for multigenerational audiences with varied requirements.
Universal design is the latest buzzword, and it's being incorporated into new and existing housing to allow aging in place. Baby boomers from ages 43 to 61 number nearly 80 million. With those numbers, boomers will significantly impact the remodeling industry over the next five years, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).
It's much more people-friendly than the older barrier-free concept that was part of the Americans with Disabilities Act package. That resulted in ramps at some entrances of public buildings for wheelchair-bound Americans and bathrooms with wide stalls that called attention to their limitations. New universal designs are about eliminating handicapped stigmas while marrying barrier-free function with aesthetics.
An estimated 30 million Americans use wheelchairs or walkers, according to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). But the concepts of universal design are attractive to all generations.
"The point is that this is not just for old people or people with disabilities," says Elinor Ginzler, director of AARP's livable communities program. "It's for people of all ages. A lever door handle, for example, may help somebody with grip problems. It's also a great thing for a little kid or for moms who are carrying loads of laundry in their arms."
For people building new homes or remodeling, there's a special group of builders, architects and designers trained in universal design. They're called certified aging-in-place sApecialists (CAPS), and the Web sites of both the AARP (www.aarp.org) and the National Association of Home Builders (www.nahb.org) list these specialists by state.
There may be initial resistance to the concept, says Vince Butler, president of Butler Brothers Corp., a company in Clifton, Va., that designs and builds homes.
"The knee-jerk reaction is: 'I don't want my house to look strange or detract from resale.' But a zero-step entrance, wider hallways, lever handles and rocker light switches actually add to value," he says.
Not surprisingly, many universal ideas recently have been featured in top design publications because they're practical and convenient for everyone. Many recommendations have to do with eliminating clutter and providing ample and easy-to-reach storage.
Mudrooms, for example, have become a standard feature in many new and remodeled homes. They generally include some sort of shelving, cubbies, hanging space, a bench for sitting to put on boots or set down groceries, and in at least one fun design, even a built-in niche with a cushion for the family dog.
Today's floor plans have fewer narrow hallways and less separation between rooms, especially the kitchen and family room. These open designs make homes easier to navigate. And many builders today feature at least one bedroom and bath on the first level in a multilevel home. That can make a difference to buyers who see themselves living in the home past the time they can easily navigate stairs.
In some states, legislation is mandating universal adaptations. In Georgia, California, Florida and Nevada, builders are mainstreaming universal design principles. In the Atlanta area, a coalition of organizations committed to making homes more accessible is calling it "easy living." The concept also is taking off in New Hampshire and Texas, Ginzler says.
One of the most thorough sources for incorporating universal design elements into the home is the AARP Web site. Suggestions, which cover just about every room in the house, range from simple fixes to more extensive remodeling.
Planning ahead is very much encouraged. Butler, for example, offers framing that allows the addition of an elevator to the home at a later date. That can save at least $25,000 for a costly retrofit of a shaft should stairs become a problem for a family member.
Nowhere is the potential for change more apparent than in the kitchen and the bath. Manufacturers such as Kohler Co., GE Appliances and KraftMaid Cabinetry not only have product lines to address universal design, they also offer extensive online guidelines.
On the GE Web site, for example, there are answers to a series of frequently asked questions. "Many universal design ideas can be employed at no added cost, such as specifying handles on cabinets in place of knobs, choosing faucets with single-level handles and sinks with shallow bowls," Web visitors learn.
Other recommendations seem obvious for safety reasons as well as convenience: Install heat-proof surfaces (especially next to a stove), antiscald devices and adequate lighting (with lights at top and bottom of stairwells). Secure handrails in stairways and install nonskid flooring, especially in areas that may be exposed to water.
"Whose idea was it," the AARP poses in recommendations about outlet placement, "to put electrical outlets down by the floor ... out of reach for everyone except toddlers?" Indeed, bending to plug or unplug a vacuum cleaner is much easier at the recommended 27 inches (or even 30 to 44 inches) off the floor.
As many kitchen designers have found, varying countertops is a pragmatic idea, especially for different zones.
"Do counters at a variety of levels," advises Ginzler, recommending one counter at a standard 36 to 37 inches and another between 28 and 32 inches. In addition, Ginzler says, a 30-inch knee space allows homemakers to sit comfortably while working at a kitchen counter.
Counter heights also can be adjusted in bathrooms, where a tall person might be more comfortable with an extra four inches above standard countertop heights of 32 to 36 inches. A toilet that's at least 18 inches tall will be less of a strain on the back and knees.
In the kitchen, simply raising the height of a dishwasher 6 to 8 inches also is easier on the back. Dishwasher drawers, such as those manufactured by Fisher and Paykel, may be ideal, especially because a pair can be split, installed on either side of a sink, for example, for easier access.
The drawer concept also is available in refrigerators and freezers (Sub-Zero is a leading manufacturer) and most recently in microwaves (including ones by Sharp).
More handy features in the kitchen and other rooms of the house include pullout work surfaces, rollout shelves and baskets, and work carts on casters.
"Shelves that pull up and drop down also are wonderful," Ginzler says. "I'm 5 feet tall. It beats bringing a chair over and standing on it or hopping up and sitting on the counter to reach something."