By 2020, the number of Americans age 50+ is expected to reach nearly 120 million, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections. And with a majority of them interested in living in their own homes for as long as possible—Houzz’s 2016 Aging-in-Place report found that 61% of respondents 55 or over planned to stay in their homes indefinitely—universal design (UD) is going to be an area of importance for remodelers for years to come.
With that in mind, this year’s Cost vs. Value report was the first to include a UD-themed project: converting a ‘standard’ bathroom into one that incorporates accessible features, like a shower, widened doorway, and appropriate grab bars. According to the report, it’s a decent investment, with an average 68.4% ROI. But in speaking with universal design experts, two things became clear: that creating a well-designed, accessible space isn’t always so easy, and that (like many home improvement projects) the true value of universal design lies beyond its monetary gains.
Master The Basics
Perhaps the first challenge for remodelers to overcome is understanding what exactly universal design is, and what it means for consumers. According to Richard Duncan, executive director of The RL Mace Universal Design Institute in Asheville, N.C., “A lot of the design standards for homes were developed long ago when the number of older people and the number of people who could survive life with serious health problems just weren’t what they are now., so we’re operating substantially on an older standard.” He adds, “Universal design does in fact respond to that.”
While the main tenet of universal design—making a home safer and more comfortable for its occupants—sounds like a no-brainer, it can be a surprisingly tough sell. “UD principles are very misunderstood,” says Erik Listou, co-founder of the Living in Place Institute in Denver. “Consumers typically perceive it as institutional design. The business community, remodelers and designers, they see it as something that’s only for people who are aging or those with a current disability.”
Contrary to these misconceptions, style and marketability are actually part of UD principles, says Duncan. “We say it has to look good and work well,” he explains. “You [should] not have people walk into a bathroom and say, ‘Oh, this is something for Grandma.’ If that’s their reaction, then you’ve done something wrong.”
Says Russ Glickman, president and founder of Glickman Design Build in Rockville, Md., “There’s different levels of finish and different styles. We can do really nice bathrooms that do not look institutional at all.”
For Glickman, the interest in universal design first came on a personal level: His son, born prematurely, experienced complications from cerebral palsy that limited his ability to walk or engage independently in many daily activities. To accommodate their son’s needs, Glickman and his wife made extensive modifications to their home. Over time, word of his skillset spread, and now, UD and accessibility are a major part of what Glickman Design Build offers.
Three Key Factors
1. Layout: The first thing to consider is if there’s enough space for a client who needs a bit more room to maneuver. Not only do the doorways need to be wider, Glickman notes, but remodelers need to consider the space inside the doorway—a 5-foot turning radius is the ADA recommendation. There also needs to be enough room in the bathroom itself for people to move around. “You want to have space for a wheelchair beside the toilet. ... You need space to approach the sink,” Glickman says.
When space around the doorway is at a premium, Duncan suggests considering pocket doors, which “avoid that big door swing.”
2. Design: One feature that combines style and functionality is “a horizontal line, especially in the shower, at about 60 inches,” says Listou. “That contrasting line provides a perceptional level and also depth perception where the wall is while they’re in the shower.”
Listou also suggests using low-contrast colors on the floor to minimize tripping hazards. And when it comes to flooring, slip-resistance is critical, Duncan notes. “[Clients] might want a polished marble on the floor because they like it so much on their countertops, but you have to talk them down from that, because someone’s going to wind up with a hip fracture.”
3. Selections: Curbless showers are one of the most common UD features, since the lack of a threshold makes them easy for anyone to use. ““Curbless showers these days might be selling themselves,” Duncan says. “They look elegant, and people like them.” But with no barrier to hold in water, remodelers must be mindful of proper installation and drainage. “Usually the shower floor would be an inch or two higher than the floor in the bathroom. Well, you need that lower, an inch or 2 lower, because the water has to flow down toward the drain,” Glickman says.
Grab bars and handholds are critical from both a safety and a design perspective. Luckily, as all three experts interviewed for this article pointed out, the growing amount of attractive options in this category makes selection easier than ever. Listou offers a few practical pointers: “Use towel bars that are rated for heavier weight, and never install them in a stud; use the appropriate hangers that are designed to hold the product in the wall.”
Another fixture to keep in mind is the toilet. Though higher toilets have seen a rebranding lately as ‘comfort-height,’ they might be too tall for smaller people with limited mobility, Duncan says. “I don’t think people should get blindly convinced that an 18- or 19-inch seat is the single UD standard for a toilet height.”
The Next Steps
For remodelers who aren’t experienced in the field of universal design, getting started can seem daunting. To get over that initial hurdle, education is essential. “That will help [you] understand not only better design, but also products and how to market,” Listou says.
He also recommends creating “collaborative teams” with members of other industries, such as occupational therapists and product suppliers, that can facilitate a better understanding of what an accessible home needs.
Glickman suggests taking NAHB’s Certified Aging in Place Specialist course and NARI’s Universal Design Certified Professional course, as well as hiring an accessibility consultant, if possible, to help with the first projects. “I did trial and error on my own house,” he says. “Until you do a few of them, it can be kind of hard to get it right on your own.”
Beyond construction, knowing how to market universal design is a skill set of its own. After all, many clients aren’t sold by the idea of aging or a loss of mobility. Instead, Duncan says, remodelers should emphasize the positive features of UD that will appeal to everyone: “ease of use, spaciousness, and convenience.” Some clients, he adds, will respond to the idea of increased resale value.
When clients are reluctant to think about their future limitations, adaptable projects that can be easily modified to increase accessibility can be a good middle ground. “A lot of people, if they’re aging, they don’t want to have anything that necessarily works for a wheelchair now,” Glickman says. “But if they can have a project that can be adapted [as they age], you can really do a client a great service.”
Advises Listou, “Don’t think if it costs more, they won’t buy it. That thinking has never been true. Sell your product on safety and service.” Furthermore, he suggests that remodelers “don’t give options for safety—just include it.”
That ultimately will help make UD more widely known and accepted, so that clients are already aware of and interested in it before even meeting with a remodeler. Duncan compares this to how customers now think of green features. “Nowadays, for a lot of people, green is just cool,” he says. “We know we want our homes to be kind of aspirational. We would love to get universal design or better living to the point of being cool also.”