Esther Greenhouse, an enabling design specialist from Brooktondale, N.Y., sent this letter to REMODELING in response to our June cover features on universal design. The writer's use of italicized, underlined, capitalized, and bold-face type are repeated here.

As an advocate for design which enables, I was thrilled to see your cover story Beauty Without Barriers: Universal Design for All Ages, All Stages of your June 2013 issue. While I praise you for much helpful and applicable information presented in clear ways throughout the issue particularly in Design it Forward, I struggled to get through the well-written and informative article Easy Access: How to Sell Universal Design because the entire premise of the article was wrong.

This article is not about "all ages, all stages" and repeats the mistake that consumers and professionals consistently make: limiting the focus of universal design (UD) only to people 50 an older. This misconception is the greatest barrier to widespread acceptance and adoption of Universal Design principles. Really, this article is a piece on design for aging-in-place, not universal design. 

Phrases like:

  • "Group One consists of the people who need it or may need it" serve to reinforce the misconception that UD = Aging in Place = ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act].This is rife in every level of our society, and I witness it on a regular basis with both consumers and a variety of professionals.
  • "Selling a job to people who already have accessibility issues" or the section "Call in Med Techs" are not indicative of UD projects. UD, which is human-centered design, should be the foundation for every project. A client with accessibility or medical issues needs accessible design.

The key to implementation of UD is a paradigm shift. Everyone in the process (consumer, designer, builder, product designer, product sales rep, product manufacturer, community planner, etc.) must understand that UD IS DESIGN FOR ALL.

Some have observed that "UD is just good design." That's right. When I was both studying and teaching design, the emphasis was on understanding the needs of the users and potential users of a space.  How do you know when someone who is 4-foot-11 or 6-foot-4 will be using a space? When we are talking about the design of a home, a community, and the features within each, our program must look at the physical, behavioral, and social needs of persons from infancy to over 100, as well as the activities which are likely to occur.

Many in the process (particularly consumers) are uncomfortable with planning for older age needs and scenarios; which was one of the reasons for your article on marketing and selling. But we have to step back and ask "Are we as a society regularly designing for more acceptable and commonplace scenarios like: wheeling in a bike, carrying in a large package, wheeling in a stroller or suitcase, moving furniture around, carrying laundry baskets?" The answer is a resounding "No."

So this means that we are falling short on good design—functional design which is sustainable over the lifetime of the dwelling unit and all who may ever live there—no matter by what concept we label it. UD features such as wider doorways and hallways and zero-step entries make the previous tasks possible, and yet in the 25 years since the concept of UD was created, how many homes have been built to meet those common needs?

Builders who have incorporated UD as standard design—respecting the age ranges and use scenarios of a home--have found that UD sells itself. Why? Because it's just good design. For a micro level example, look at Apple products. These products reflect an understanding of all the relevant user needs from user interface to aesthetics; and people consistently buy them even in a market with lower priced alternatives.

Your quote by Michael Thomas regarding Baby Boomers choosing residences with UD features over similar choices without is spot on. Let's widen the aperture and explain that UD features are also desirable not only to boomers' aging parents but to their adult children who are the Gen Xers and Millenials, and people who, at any age, come in a variety of heights and abilities. Then we will be talking about universal design.

Until every member in the process understands that UD is human-centered design which benefits everyone we will struggle to sell universal design. We need a concerted effort to understand what UD really is, and to promote accurate explanations and representations, including an emphasis on how UD benefits the "average" population, who sees themselves as perfectly abled and age-less.