In your remodeling company you’re likely already doing projects with Universal Design aspects--installing varied height countertop, designing zero-threshold entries. You’re probably already asking clients about their needs and desires, how they live in their homes and how their homes can work better for them. But to differentiate yourself from competitors, it might be time to get more knowledgeable about UD principles and make a concerted effort to incorporate the concepts into every project.

“Universal Design will be the slowest revolution ever,” says Bill Owens, CEO of the Better Living Design Institute and owner of Owens Construction in Columbus, Ohio. “It will be one contract, one remodeler, one idea at a time.”

Get Schooled

You need to know what you’re talking about when it comes to UD. Unfortunately, the water has been muddy regarding branding. While it is related to the following concepts, they are not to be used interchangeably: UD is not Aging-in-Place or Accessible Design or Adaptable Design or even Visitability. Universal Design, as defined by most agencies using the term, is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” It does not mean that every home needs a wheelchair ramp. AARP is hoping to rebrand UD as Better Living Design.

If you want to bring UD principles into your business, you don’t need to take a class or get a certification, but it’s recommended says Steve Hoffacker, a long-time consultant to the building industry and author of several books on UD for builders. (Full disclosure: Hoffacker teaches UD courses for NAHB.) You can get educated and work on professional development through NAHB or NARI, which offer certifications, as well as through these places:

Sell It Like It Is

Meet consumers where they are now, Owens says. Focus on homes that will function well and be beautiful. What does that mean? One example is the no-threshold shower, which is a hot design element. A recent National Kitchen and Bath Association survey said that more than half of respondents designed no-threshold showers for their clients in 2013, with 70% expecting to do more in 2014. (See the 2014 Kitchen and Bath Trend Report.) Homeowners are looking for a spa-like sanctuary for their bathrooms. And, by the way, the curbless shower takes away a trip hazard. That handheld shower nozzle on the wall? That can be used to clean the shower as well as wash the kids or the dog. And what about the popular open floor plan, which is great for easy circulation.

The smart remodeler or builder won’t even bring up the term Universal Design, or mention that the client might need a wheel chair one day, and that the open floor plan or curbless shower would be a boon. Peggy Mackowski, co-owner of Quality Design and Construction  in Raleigh, N.C., who has done many UD and CAPS projects, says that she will share her own story of blowing out her knees in a skiing accident when she was in her 30s to let the image sink in that a no-threshold shower with a teak fold-down bench, for example, might work for anybody.

BLD Institute has come up with four buzzwords that, Owens says, are “stimulating, not stigmatizing like aging-in-place”: inviting, comfortable, convenient, ease of use. He also says not to talk about “safety.” He has found that people can get testy, saying things like, “I don’t need to be told how to be safe in my own home.”

Make the concepts just another tool in your toolbox, Owens says. “This is not a program that will rewrite your book of business. But, especially for full-service remodelers, this can help you rebrand yourself as someone who ‘gets design’ in 2014. Then you figure out how to carry that message into your marketplace.”

Cost versus Value

Owens, who works hands-on in his company, believes that many features of UD don’t have to cost much more than traditional building methods. For example, a zero-flush entry, he says, “can be designed into a project at basically the same cost as stairs if it’s a reasonable change in elevation, maybe three or four steps. And there’s no building code that will stop you from doing a slope up to framed construction.” Putting in a second banister on stairwells is really just the cost of the extra rail," he says. "You could stack one closet on top of another for a possible future lift."

Owens admits that bathrooms, in terms of cost, can be a bit trickier. When adding plywood behind the walls for future hand holds, there’s a lot to consider in terms of wall thickness and shower placement. But, again, Owens believes it may add only $100 in additional time and materials for something that will “add great value for the homeowner.” (See "UD Features" below for other value adds.) If you’re not opening up the walls, Hoffacker suggests using some of the new fasteners with strong holding power that are on the market.

Overall, what you’re looking for in design is a certain transparency. Owens refers to “covert UD projects” that he has done using a commonsense approach to appealing design. With UD/Better Living Design, he says, “We want to create a paradigm shift in homes that look great and function well. We’re looking for that to go mainstream in marketability.”

UD Features

Some of the more common universal design features that are also incorporated into aging-in-place remodels:

  • No-step entry. No one needs to use stairs to get into a universal home or into the home's main rooms.
  • One-story living. Places to eat, use the bathroom and sleep are all located on one level, which is barrier-free.
  • Wide doorways. Doorways that are 32-36 inches wide let wheelchairs pass through. They also make it easy to move big things in and out of the house.
  • Wide hallways. Hallways should be 36-42 inches wide. That way, everyone and everything moves more easily from room to room.
  • Extra floor space. Everyone feel less cramped. And people in wheelchairs have more space to turn.

Some universal design features just make good sense. Once you bring them into your home, you'll wonder how you ever lived without them. For example:

  • Floors and bathtubs with non-slip surfaces help everyone stay on their feet. They're not just for people who are frail. The same goes for handrails on steps and grab bars in bathrooms.
  • Thresholds that are flush with the floor make it easy for a wheelchair to get through a doorway. They also keep others from tripping.
  • Good lighting helps people with poor vision. And it helps everyone else see better, too.
  • Lever door handles and rocker light switches are great for people with poor hand strength. But others like them too. Try using these devices when your arms are full of packages. You'll never go back to knobs or standard switches.