The phrases "universal design," and "accessible design" are often used interchangeably, but as CAPS remodeler Bill Owens pointed out during his presentation at the 2013 Remodeling Show, they're quite different and need to be considered separately for every remodeling project.

"It seems like there's a fuzzy line between the two, but there's really a lot of distinction if you drill down," explained the president of Powell, Ohio-based Owens Construction. "If you think about the entire spectrum of human performance characteristics, in some ways the two concepts are interrelated, such as with mobility issues. But other concerns like cognitive issues also need to be considered. Universal design tries to take the biggest chunk and satisfy needs regardless of age, height, girth, sensory issues, and other concerns."

In his presentation on universal design, Owens laid out three ways that can help remodelers get more universal features into their projects with fewer uncomfortable conversations with homeowners.

Blending In

Many remodelers are already including universal design elements in the their projects without having to point it out to clients. Owens calls this a "transparent" approach whereby the universal , accessible, or adaptable features blend in so well with the homeowners' lifestyle, they're not even noticed. "You should have your universal design glasses on all the time," Owens says. "The cool part is if you do, and your design is transparent, you don't even have to have a discussion with the homeowner on these inclusions. If the aesthetic value is there, it becomes much easier to do over time." Examples include:

  • Varied countertop heights where a lowered section is sold as a "baking center," but can be of use to anyone who needs to work from a seated position.
  • Accent lights along staircases that add to or blend in with the home's design and décor, but improve visibility beyond just lighting the top and bottom landings.

Talking the Talk

When a conversation becomes necessary, Owens says many homeowners - especially those getting on in years - are hesitant to discuss important issues either because of embarrassment or denial of a problem. "Choose your words carefully in these conversations," he says. "Avoid words that could be associated with weakness, vulnerability, or loss of function."

For instance, Owens Construction team members use the phrase "wheelchair user" instead of saying "a person in a wheelchair." The former acknowledges that the chair is a part of the who the person is and how they move through the world; the latter focuses on the person's dependence on the device.

In aging-in-place situations, Owens says designers should look for ways to separate the difficult considerations of aging from the equation. Instead, make a homeowner's limitations the house's fault by pointing out the ways the house is deficient, not how the homeowners' abilities are changing.

Looking to the Future

If homeowner's aren't ready to take the unviersal design plunge, remodelers can still do some prep work to make changes easier in the future. Owens calls this "adaptable" design, in that the home and its layout can adapt to accessibility needs later on.

"The goal is that we don't want to und up with good money after bad," Owens says, explaining that ignoring potential usability issues could lead to expensive re-remodeling down the road. "Think about what items you can put in to create a more flexible space." Examples include:

  • A first-floor den or office outfitted with a closet and bathroom to serve as a future first-floor bedroom.
  • Continuous blocking behind bathroom walls that can accommodate a shelf or towel bar now, and a grab bar later.
  • Open space below a kitchen counter to house a roll-out island now, or serve as knee space for a wheelchair user in the future.

By approaching a remodeling project with these considerations in mind, Owens says remodelers will be able to "support a variety of users and activities, and besides safety, ease-of-use, and convenience, will add "comfort" to the goals that their universal design work can achieve." — Lauren Hunter is senior products editor at REMODELING. Find her on Twitter at @LaurenHunter_HW or @RemodelingMag.