|Boomers push interest in Universal
"I guess people don't recognize
how their age affects them," Smith says.
The Universal Design touches in Cambridge homes are
subtle, he says. The grab bars in bathrooms are optional, but the
company builds the walls in such a way that they're easy to add
on at a later date. There are lever door handles and soft-touch
light switches. Counters in kitchens have open space underneath
for knees in wheelchairs. The doorways are wide and have zero-step
"How we incorporate these things
into a home is as important as having them in the house, because if someone's
not interested in buying a home because it's for old folks, then it doesn't help
anyone," he says.
David Engelman, owner of High Mountain Homes in Albuquerque,
N.M, won top prize in the Universal Design category during last
year's Parade of Homes organized by the Homebuilders Association
of Central New Mexico. To the casual eye, there is nothing in the
elegant abode that screams disability. The plaster walls smoothed
by hand, the spacious great room and hallways, the large kitchen
and the roll-in showers are all great features for people with disabilities.
But its list price of more than $800,000 was due to its mountain
location and excellent design. The couple buying the home is moving
from out of state and wants it to be their last house, Engelman
says, but they aren't disabled.
He sees nothing but growth ahead for the concept as people live
longer. He also foresees more demand as Americans' health declines from disabling
illnesses such as diabetes and obesity.
Not all Universal Design homes have such a hefty price
tag. Almost any home can be designed with UD elements; however it
is more difficult in smaller spaces, because there must be a fair
amount of open space and wide hallways inside. And Universal Design
isn't just for single-family dwellings. University Neighborhood
Apartments has recently opened in Berkeley, Calif., touted by its
developers as the first affordable, universally designed apartment
community in the country.
Depending on how extensive the Universal Design touches
are, they could add up to $4,000 to the cost of a home, say builders
and designers. However, the cost is much less than that of retrofitting
an existing home, so including those elements at the beginning is
critical, according to the Universal
Design Alliance, a nonprofit corporation in Suwannee, Ga.
Smith, with Cambridge Homes, says in his market one
of the more expensive features is the zero-step thresholds, because
many homes in the Midwest have basements. It requires much more
grading to prevent water intrusion. So in markets where those elements
aren't required, it means selling a buyer on an extra $4,500 that
they could use on other options, he says.
"That's where, politically, the problem comes in with
what customers want," he says.
custom builders have led the way in Universal Design so far. Many production builders,
such as KB Home and Centex Corp., insist they will add Universal Design features
if that is what buyers want, however they are not necessarily standard.
is also the delicate process of bringing up the possibility of disability, through
aging or injury. "People don't want to admit that it's possible," says
Rebecca Ingram, an architect in Albuquerque who became a paraplegic 13 years ago
after a skydiving accident. "I've even done houses for people with disabilities
who don't think they might get worse."
But it is buyers who will drive the bigger home builders
to add Universal Design features, Ingram says, so it's important
to educate them at a grassroots level about UD's positive aspects.
"I've never had anyone say 'Rip out this door.
It's too wide. It makes the room too spacious.' Or 'I feel lost in my bathroom
because it's just too big'," she says. "People appreciate those features."
Megan Kamerick is a freelance writer based in New Mexico.