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Richard Duncan is the executive director of the RL Mace Universal Design Institute, a nonprofit organization based in North Carolina dedicated to promoting the concept and practice of accessible and universal design. The institute's work manifests the belief that all new environments and products, to the greatest extent possible, should and can be usable by everyone regardless of age, ability, or circumstance. During his seminar, “Universal Design Principles & Practices,” at the 2012 Remodeling Leadership Conference, attendees learned about fundamental universal design principles and saw design features and products that can be included in a variety of home remodeling projects.

Remodeling: How would you best describe universal design?

Richard Duncan: From a housing perspective, universal design consists of home features and home products that add convenience and ease of use while also looking good and adding value to the home. We often have to distinguish universal design from accessible design and accessibility features in home design like ramps and grab bars on the toilet. We try to draw that distinction pretty dramatically, and I’ll do that in the seminar as well. Basically it’s stuff that works well and looks good.

RM: When did you first become interested in universal design?

RD: I’ve been in the field for about 30 years so I’ve grown up with the development of the concept. The name was coined in the mid-1980s when people who were working in the field of accessibility began to realize that instead of simply benefitting one narrow group, these features seemed to benefit a wider range of people. So they tried to develop this more encompassing concept into what they called “universal design.” It didn’t just look at this narrowly targeted beneficiary group, but at everybody, and that’s one of the distinguishing features about universal design: the beneficiary group in many cases is quite broad. It may benefit a subset a great deal but it benefits everyone to some degree as well.

My evolution tracked the evolution of universal design. A lot of us began working in the field when it was called “accessibility.” Some of us migrated into universal design and still have a foot in both camps. In housing and remodeling, it plays out in a similar way. There will be a lot of remodelers whose exposure to this is through clients who have a particular health problem — chronic conditions, an older household — and they’re called in to solve a problem.

Growing Trend?

RM: It seems like universal design has really become an important movement in the last few years. Why has it gained so much popularity now?

RD: The graying of America has been the strongest driving force behind this. Just due to aging, there are more people who are more likely to encounter a mismatch in their housing in any given year. Oftentimes older households are just as sensitized to aging issues, and they’re not always interested in having someone talk to them about [living in an age-appropriate or ability-appropriate home]. So when you’re doing marketing and sales, you need to be careful about the imagery you use. You want to show people attractive projects from your last job. All the projects look good but one may have features that will help the client do all their kitchen activities for as long as they want to [stay in their home].

RM: Why should a remodeler consider doing universal design work?

RD: Customers have an increased appreciation and awareness of the benefits of universal design and the way they can be rendered. When the remodeler starts to mention [universal design], he’ll get a more receptive reaction than he would have before [the concept was more widely recognized]. Also, the economics of the construction industry lately have shown that remodeling has survived the downturn so there is an opportunity now that may not be present in a few years to take advantage of that. People are doing remodeling jobs instead of buying new homes. Finally, on an individual basis, you have the opportunity to take advantage of these trends over other remodelers who aren’t as savvy.

RM: It would seem that the biggest market for this type of project is the baby boomers. Is there a bit of denial from this particular demographic?

RD: There is and that’s why the care in marketing and sales has to be present. We’ve seen lots of folks do good work but market it badly. For all their good intentions, they’re not aware of just how much pushback there is. The stuff that resonates most doesn’t include these reminders [of aging in place]. People still fear growing old, but we all maintain this convenient fiction that it’s the other guys who are aging. You need to acknowledge that but you don’t need to hit people in the face with it. You need to emphasize the non-aging things. Talk about the convenience and ease-of-use. Show them that this stuff can still look sexy, interesting, and fun. With increased use of technology and whole-house systems, those can also be serving universal design goals at the same time. Have the sexy, fun aspects of technology now knowing that later on it can be useful for other purposes.

In It for the Long Haul

RM: Is universal design a fad or is it a concept that is here to stay?

RD: It’s been around long enough now that it’s not going away anytime soon. The world of universal design, with its diverse audiences and higher design standards, stemmed from commercial design elements we see in non-residential environments. We’ve gotten so used to office environments with levered door handles that we don’t even think about it anymore; we just enjoy the convenience. Now we’re just trying to bring it inside the home. The aging demographic is the driving force for the 21st century and it is not going to stop growing until the middle of the century. And even then it’s going to maintain a very high proportion of society. That’s the sign of a healthy, vibrant society: you have lots of older people. Inevitably we have life changes that accompany that. People will get tired of living in very inappropriate settings that don’t meet their needs. Universal design will be around for a long time.

RM: What will attendees take away from your seminar at the Remodeling Leadership Conference?

RD: I hope that they can leave with an altered awareness. Some may not really know about universal design and they may think they’re seeing a seminar about attractive accessible design. So they’ll learn those distinctions and they can take those to the marketplace. They will be able to sell the project in any direction it needs to go, depending upon the client’s needs. I will do that in part by showing a lot of visuals about what they’re used to seeing as opposed to what we’re talking about. We’ll talk about marketing too, and try to give them some tips on how to approach this topic as well has how not to approach it. They’ll leave with some information on various national universal design resources. They’ll also see a variety of things they can include in their next project … or even their next five projects.

Click here to read more from the 2012 Remodeling Leadership Conference speakers.