The challenges of the current housing market are not going away any time soon, but builders and remodelers can thrive by crafting homes for people over the age of 50 using universal design techniques. Two pros provided dozens of tips during a session at the International Builders’ Show titled “Universal Design Boot Camp.”

The presenters were Christine Fortenberry, president of Fortenberry Homes in Power Springs, Ga., and Rebecca Stahr, owner of LifeSpring Environs, an aging-in-place design firm in Atlanta, Ga.

Stahr said there are four categories of 50-plus home buyers:

  • Baby Boomers – born 1946 to 1964

  • Early Retired – born 1934 to 1945

  • Retired – born 1923 to 1933

  • Post Retired – born before 1933

Although both presenters said that universal design benefits people of all ages, Stahr said it’s best to select one category to target because the four 50-plus groups have different needs. She also noted that pros have a lot of opportunities for retrofitting homes because a majority of the housing stock is more than 30 years old.
The two women provided numerous tips for making homes safe and accessible. They said to install:

  • appliances with digital controls that are large and easy to read

  • the washer, dryer, and dishwasher at an elevated height so users don’t have to bend 

  • side-by-side refrigerators that are easy to reach into

  • smooth electric cooktops because you can see when they are on

  • pullout faucets with high necks that are easy to maneuver 

  • plenty of room in front of the toilet and vanity

  • grab bars, or reinforce walls in showers so grab bars can be added later

  • a fireplace higher off the ground so they are easier to clean

  • drawers in kitchen and bath cabinets that slide, glide, lower, and raise

  • C- and D-shaped door hardware because they are easy to pull

  • wider-width closet, entry, and interior doors that can accommodate wheelchairs and the moving of big furniture

  • sloping exterior entries instead of steps

  • low thresholds between rooms and in doorways

  • windows that require less than 8 pounds of pressure to open

  • light switches at lower heights and electrical outlets at higher heights so they are easier to reach

  • different textured flooring in adjacent rooms for easier transitions

  • different colored flooring at the bottom of staircases

  • lots of bright lighting for older eyes

  • motion sensors

Fortenberry, who walks with a limp as a result of a car accident, noted she’s made mistakes during her 30-year career. She showed photos of several houses she built for herself that she said she had to sell within a few years because they were not universally designed.
As for mixing green building with universal design, Stahr contended: “If we go to the effort to make it sustainable, but the person has to move because they can’t live there anymore, that is not sustainable.”

Stahr ended the session by saying if builders can deliver comfort and convenience to their 50-plus clients, they can expect profits even in this challenging economy.