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Boomers push interest in Universal Design homes
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"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 thresholds.

"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.

More to come
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.

Cambridge notwithstanding, 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.

There 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.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy-- Posted: Nov. 24, 2005
More stories by Megan Kamerick
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