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Boomers push interest in Universal Design homes

So you've got the house of your dreams. Maybe it's a three-level townhome in the city or a spread in the country sporting a grand staircase. Perhaps it's a historic bungalow with an elevated, wraparound front porch.

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It's perfect for you and your family.

And then one day it's suddenly useless.

You're T-boned at an intersection in your car or perhaps an elderly parent must move in with you. Or maybe your twins have moved beyond the crawling years and you've blown out your knee chasing them up and down three staircases.

The perfect home has not changed -- but you have and it no longer fits your needs.

It would if it incorporated the concept of Universal Design.

The idea is simple: a home that is accommodating and convenient to all users at all stages of life. Universal Design principles have been around since the 1970s when the phrase was coined by architect Ronald Mace, who became director of the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University.

Advocates for the disabled have been its biggest cheerleaders, but now it is taking hold across the country as the first baby boomers reach retirement. There are currently 35 million Americans over the age of 65, and that number will reach 40 million by 2010, according to Census Bureau projections. Some 80 percent of the population now lives past age 65, and about 86 percent of older Americans plan to stay in their homes for the rest of their lives, according to AARP.

Recognizing this growing trend, a recent White House conference on aging at the headquarters of the National Association of Home Builders focused on the role of housing design and housing modification in helping people stay in their homes as they age.

Custom homebuilders and home suppliers, such as Kohler Co., are increasingly incorporating Universal Design elements into their dwellings and products. Home Depot Inc. formed an alliance with AARP last year to pilot in-store resource centers that will provide products and information for older Americans who want to stay in their homes.

There are many sources of information to help you learn about incorporating Universal Design features into a new home or retrofitting your existing home.

Not for seniors only
Before visions of grab bars loom in your head, remember that marketers have become quite adept at giving boomers what they want over the last 50 years. They know that attaching "senior" to a product is the kiss of death.

This is the generation, after all, that has surged through the decades demanding the market meet its needs. It has ruled the country demographically from the day the first of its members popped out into post-war America. So the last thing it wants to hear is that it's -- ahem -- getting old.

"Active adult" is the lingo of builders who now recognize that the coming wave of retirees has no interest in curling up in front of their televisions all day in retirement.

"One thing we've found over the years is that people think they're 20 years younger than they are," says David Smith, vice president of product marketing and development with Cambridge Homes.

Owned by home building giant D.R. Horton Inc., Cambridge is one of the biggest builders in Illinois and specializes in active adult communities in the Chicago area.

Next: Almost any home can be designed with Universal Design elements.
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