Dan Page

Universal design. Accessible design. Aging-in-place. All of these terms describe a design philosophy that recognizes the need for the built environment to accommodate people of different sizes, shapes, and abilities, and strives to remove obstacles to easy use by current and future occupants.

Some solutions are as simple as wider doorways and lever-handle locksets; others are tailored to particular physical constraints and the needs of caregivers. Still other solutions anticipate the effects of aging on vision, range of motion, and strength.

Many believe these solutions should become standard practice, but it’s not always easy to design for an eventuality that most homeowners don’t want to think about.

Most remodelers who are doing universal design work agree that the biggest obstacle with clients is strictly psychological. And if the client is a baby boomer, there is even more pushback.

“Baby boomers live in the age of denial,” says Mindy Mitchell, a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS) design consultant with Sun Design, in Burke, Va. “They’re waiting for a catastrophic event before they do something — and then it’s not as well thought out and it’s more expensive because it’s knee-jerk.”

Mitchell adds that at 60, her age actually helps her in pitching universal design because her clients view her more as a peer. “As a boomer, I know we are prone to denial,” she says. “However, having the ‘what-if’ conversation with clients before a catastrophic event occurs gives them the time and space they need to make thoughtful decisions about how they want to live into the future. Do it now, do it later, or do it differently. These are the three choices aging clients face with their homes.”

Andrew Shore, president of Sea Pointe Construction, in Irvine, Calif., has also run into very active clients who don’t want to admit they are growing older and could benefit from universal design features. “We have to subtly educate them and talk about grab bars in showers and how access is going to be if they continue to live in the home,” he says. “It’s more subtle, but you can get them interested and point out the difficulties they might have maneuvering around the home.”

If the client is an avid skier or other type of athlete, you could ask about injuries and how difficult it would be for access if they took a fall on the slopes. “They may not be permanently handicapped, but they may have a disability for a few months while they recover,” he says. “They can admit that [without having to think in terms of] being permanently disabled.”

“When we start the initial design process with our clients, we always talk about the fact that none of us have crystal balls to be able to foresee what our health and mobility challenges may be in the coming years, so it’s important to try to plan for whatever may come to pass,” says Joanne Chappell-Theunissen, co-owner of Howling Hammer Builders, in Lansing, Mich. “I’m always surprised and saddened to see large remodeling projects with huge investments where universal design practices have been totally ignored in favor of aesthetics alone.”

Beyond Grab Bars

To get around any potential prickliness from clients, Russell Glickman, owner of Glickman Design Build, in North Potomac, Md., broaches the subject by asking prospective clients how long they plan to stay in the home — especially if they are of a certain age.

“I ask them if they’re thinking about resale value and things other people might want if they go to sell the house,” he says. “If they’re staying forever, then that’s an obvious need for universal design. And if they’re planning on selling it, then they should consider universal design, due to the aging population. People seem more receptive for other people’s needs, so that tends to be more of a selling point.”

And that seems to be the way in for many remodelers: Tell the potential clients in as subtle a way as possible, “Well, of course you may not need these features, but with an aging population, the next resident might.”

Breaking Barriers Co-owners Greg Buitrago Jr. and Jorge Castellanos of Hammer Contractors Design & Build, Olney, Md.
David Sharpe Breaking Barriers Co-owners Greg Buitrago Jr. and Jorge Castellanos of Hammer Contractors Design & Build, Olney, Md.

Glickman says he puts the idea out there and that it typically is not a turn-off; people seem to like the idea of making their house more viable for anyone who might be interested in buying it a few years down the road.

Aside from being a benefit for future homeowners and adding value to the home, Greg Buitrago Jr., co-owner of Hammer Contractors Design & Build, in Olney, Md., says that he promotes the familial aspect of universal design to clients who might be on the fence.

“Whether it’s making the home easier for their grandchildren or their parents to navigate, we point to universal design as a way to help with family life and performing day-to-day activities,” he says. “For boomers, we go up a generation and talk about their visiting parents or even their grandkids. We emphasize that it’s better living and safer living.”

Buitrago says that for Hammer Contractors, universal design is not just a selling point to close on the lucrative boomer market. “I’ve seen, from my own parents, how those features literally make life possible,” he says. “When you combine those learning points with the universal design mentality — function with beauty — you’re really able to take care of the client and empathize with them more so than just giving someone grab bars.”

Biggest Challenges: People & Products

All Access Russell Glickman, president of Glickman Design Build, North Potomac, Md.
David Sharpe All Access Russell Glickman, president of Glickman Design Build, North Potomac, Md.

Most remodelers and contractors agree that the biggest challenge in pitching universal design is the mindset of potential clients who don’t want to admit they will not remain able-bodied forever.

When Molly McCabe, owner of A Kitchen That Works, in the Seattle area, met with a client who was over 65, she subtly suggested planning for the future.

“I noticed that the hallways, in particular the one from the master bedroom to the master bath, were narrow,” she explains. “I suggested, since it was only framing, that the client consider widening the hallway. The home­owner’s response was, ‘I’ll deal with that when the time comes!’ Needless to say, I received an email canceling our in-office appointment for the following day. I can’t say that I was disappointed.”

Shore says that his biggest challenge was his own staff’s initial reluctance. “At the beginning, there was a little bit of hesitancy with the guys wondering why they need [universal design certifications] or how it’s going to help our business,” he explains. “But once we started designing and selling jobs, they saw the benefit of having the knowledge to help the client. It was a pretty quick transformation in a relatively short period of time.” Adding that even more of Sea Pointe’s employees have gotten CAPS certified as the number of jobs has increased.

For Pam Miller, owner of Alchemy Construction & Consulting, in Santa Rosa, Calif., her clients and her staff were onboard with universal design solutions. The obstacle that she ran into time and time again was the lack of functional and attractive options for barrier-free installations.

“Where I live, you see the same option for a curbless shower pan in almost every kitchen and bath showroom,” she says. “And my clients didn’t want it; they all wanted more barrier-free options, but they didn’t want something that looked like a big piece of plastic that had been cut out of a hospital.”

Her solution? With the help of a few of her subcontractors, Miller opened up a small kitchen and bath showroom that specializes in attractive and safe bathing products. “We all felt a passion for this and just went for it,” she said.

Added Costs

In-House Spa This remodeled bathroom by SeaPointe Construction allows ease of use regardless of ability.
Bret Hickman In-House Spa This remodeled bathroom by SeaPointe Construction allows ease of use regardless of ability.

Aside from being in denial about how useful universal design could be, regardless of age or ability, another stumbling block is the perceived uptick in costs. Will universal design improvements cost more?

“It depends,” Glickman says. “If you’re already knocking out a wall and putting in new doors in a newly built wall, putting in a 3-foot door versus a 2½-foot door is not a big deal,” he explains, adding that, “if you have to widen existing doorways with hardwood floors around them, reframe them, adding a new header, maybe moving electrical wires, and then you have to patch the floors and refinish … well that’s a different story. That’s more expensive.”

Buitrago adds a few more specifics in terms of potential cost increases and homes in on bathrooms, saying that the costs could go anywhere from 50% to 70% higher — especially if you’re upgrading a standard master bath into a wet-room system and making the toilet more user-friendly.

“You might have to relocate the commode and a lot of the plumbing, and that’s where you’ll see a big jump in cost,” he says. “But if you’re doing an addition, the universal design upgrades can be incorporated for a marginal cost increase.”

To upgrade a kitchen, however, Buitrago says the increased costs could only fall in the 5% to 10% range depending on the custom cabinet system you’re using or how far down the spectrum from universal design to accessible design you need to go.

Shore is quick to add that, like pretty much every remodeling project, planning is key to keeping costs reasonable and within client expectations. “A well-planned universal design can minimize cost and provide homeowners with a safe, secure environment and the ability to stay in their homes for many years to come,” he says. “Which I think is a pretty good return on investment.”

Trickle Down

Just as it is a scary and unfamiliar territory for clients, universal design could be an unwelcome specialty to subcontractors who are used to doing tiling and plumbing, and framing doors, etc., a certain way.

What's Cookin'? Believe it or not, this kitchen by Sun Designs is fi lled with universal design elements.
Hadley Photography What's Cookin'? Believe it or not, this kitchen by Sun Designs is fi lled with universal design elements.

But while there are new competencies needed for universal design, most subs have been entirely receptive and open to learning new skills. Shore says that his subs have had a largely positive reaction to Sea Pointe undertaking universal design mainly because they saw the project managers take to it so readily.

“Once they saw that the project managers were onboard, they realized that we were taking it seriously and it was taken from design to implementation and installation pretty quickly,” he says. “It was really key having several guys who saw the benefit [of learning universal design] and were willing to get the education and the knowledge.”

Glickman concurs with Shore and simply says that regardless of regular or universal design, his subs “are happy to get the work,” but he adds that the subs are not experts. “They pretty much need to be supervised by us, but they’re happy,” he says. “They have no reluctance to take on those projects at all.”

Waterproofing a bathroom for a curbless shower or a wet room is where a lack of experience can really show, Glickman says, adding that his team has had to fix the work of other people who “did not have that down to a science.”

If you are just embarking on a universal design project for the first time, Glickman recommends hiring a certified universal design expert as a consultant. “It would be wise to bring someone in as an adviser on the first few jobs,” he says. “[Your subs] might be able to do the work themselves but you may need to send your tile sub to a training class.”

After the first several jobs, Glickman advises anyone embarking on universal design projects to get certified through the National Association of Home Builders (Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist or CAPS) and Accessible Home Improvement of America (Certified Environmental Access Consultant or CEAC). And the National Association of the Remodeling Industry also offers the UDCP — Universal Design Professional Certification.

But the sooner that subs, salespeople, designers, and everyone else involved in the remodeling field get onboard, the better prepared everyone will be for the impending future.

As vital as universal design is now, Shore says that it is going to come to a head in the next 10 to 20 years. “We’re seeing it now with our parents,” he says, “but it’s going to be more personal as it becomes us, our family, our friends, and our spouses who will be affected by this. It really is a no-brainer that everyone should get involved with this because that’s where the market is going.”

More REMODELING articles about universal design:

15 (or More) Ways to Incorporate Universal Design

Universal Design: An Interview With Richard Duncan, Executive Director of the RL Mace Universal Design Institute

Universal Design Certifications — A comparison of the two association certification programs