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Universal Design/Custom Homes

Universal Design in Housing

Universal Design takes Barrier-Free and Fully Accessible housing to both a higher level and creates a more marketable home. Universal design in housing applies the principles of universal design to all spaces, features, and aspects of houses and creates homes that are usable by and marketable to people of all ages and abilities.

Some features of universally designed homes are adjustable to meet particular needs or needs that change as family members age yet allow the home to remain marketable on the open real estate market. Universal design has the unique quality that, when done well, various aspects of it are pretty much hidden.

Why Universal Design in Housing:

  • includes accessible and barrier-free design
  • is not assistive technology (special aids for particular need)
  • avoids clinical images, use of durable medical equipment, and special features
  • includes some adaptable or adjustable features;
  • seeks and uses consumer products that are universally usable and commonly available;
  • makes houses easier and safer for everyone to use throughout the lifespan;
  • anticipates future needs;
  • supports the independent living, home health care, and aging-in-place movements;
  • responds to common market trends and human needs; and
  • creates a market for more universally usable products.

The idea for universal design in housing grew out of the recognition that, because most of the features needed by people with disabilities were useful to others, there was justification to make their inclusion common practice. For example, raising electrical receptacles to 15 or 18 in. above the floor eliminates the need to bend over as far and makes them easier to use for everyone or more universal. Some universal features make common activities easier for all. For example, moving is much easier in houses with step-less entrances and wider doors and hallways. Some universal design features create experiences many people have not had before. For example, when well designed, bathrooms with extra floor space to accommodate users of mobility aids are perceived as luxurious and people revel in their new-found ability to have furniture in the bathroom. A chair, bookcase, towel rack, or etagere can give bathrooms a marketable elegance and utility, and they can be removed if the space is ever needed to accommodate a family member or friend.


Universal Design FAQ’S

What is Assistive Technology, and how does it relate to Universal Design?

Universal design in housing is not assistive technology. Assistive technology devices are special aids for use by individuals with a particular disability. In housing, they may include such items as wheelchairs, walkers, mechanical ventilators, special adjustable-height toilet seats, offset door hinges, bathtub lifts, and environmental control devices. Universally designed homes can eliminate the need for some assistive technology devices and make installation and use of others more convenient should the special type of assistance they provide become needed. For example, installing showers and tubs that have built-in folding or fixed seats that can be used by everyone eliminates the need for special seats. Including extra blocking in ceilings and walls at critical locations allows grab bars and track lifts to be installed if, when, and where needed without structural changes. Installing wide doors during initial home construction eliminates the need to install offset hinges later, and additional electrical service in bedrooms and baths accommodates add-on assistive technology as it is needed.

Thus, universal design in housing accommodates but is not based on assistive technology. Universal design in housing is usually possible only in new construction, but home modifications can improve the accessibility of existing homes. Many assistive technology devices are aids for functioning in existing inaccessible environments and are, therefore, often needed to help avoid or minimize the need for expensive and disruptive home modifications. Universal design is based in the mainstream consumer market and creates houses that at least do not hinder people from living as actively as their abilities will allow.

One large difference between assistive technology and universal design in housing is in their aesthetics and associated marketing approaches. Assistive technology devices are generally not the kind of products homeowners are eager to buy and use in their homes. Their design and development are generally concerned with function (as perceived by professional caregivers) and determined by competitive costs, not user preferences or experiences. Little or no attention is paid to the aesthetics of assistive technology and rarely is competitive marketing an issue. Users, considered to be patients, are expected to use the devices selected by their professional caregivers and be grateful for the improved function or support they receive despite any stigma, embarrassment, or negative image the devices may generate. Universal design, on the other hand, appeals to and is marketable to people of all ages and abilities.

Is it possible to combine Assistive Technology and common Consumer Products?

Universal design in housing seeks and uses features and products that provide the same support as assistive technology devices but that are attractive and mass marketable to anyone. Some products cross over from assistive technology to consumer markets and vice versa. One such crossover product was an imported listening system for hard-of-hearing people who needed higher volume to watch their televisions but didn't want to disturb others. It consisted of wireless headphones with a built-in receiver, a discreet volume control, and an infrared or FM transmitter that could be attached to any television. The system became available as an assistive device in the early 1980s and cost approximately $600. Today, it is a consumer product marketed to audiophiles for home stereos, televisions, and other sound systems. It is sold through retail outlets, electronic stores, and catalogs for $69. Similarly, the inexpensive X-10 wireless residential remote control widely marketed as a convenience and home security system for more than 20 years is an excellent non-life-supporting environmental control device that can bring home automation, lighting, and small appliance control to people with disabilities. These consumer devices provide advantages similar to assistive technology equipment but are attractive and available at lower costs because they are designed and mass-marketed as consumer products.

Some common home products such as the power garage-door operator are essentially assistive technology. They assist people who cannot open or have difficulty opening overhead garage doors. They are also a convenience item because, when equipped with remote controls, one need not get out of the car to open or close the door. Because they are mass-marketed in a positive way as consumer products, they are widely available for about $150 and are never perceived to be special or assistive devices. Residential power door operators for people who have difficulty opening and using entrance doors, on the other hand, are not widely available. Although no more complex or sophisticated, they cost four to six times as much as a garage opener and, as a result, are not seen as a consumer or convenience product. As their use increases, costs are coming down. Positive marketing could change the perception of this item and make it a common amenity, with great benefit to anyone bringing in groceries or doing similar daily tasks.


Aging in Place

The inspiration for building and retrofitting Universal Design/Barrier Free/Aging in Place homes has been a life changing event. Barrier Free Contractors has 100% committed to this mission. The passion and unbelievable feeling that emanates from the ability to help others can’t be described until it is actually accomplished. And what better feeling is there for a business such as ours than to achieve a profit by helping others live more comfortably while gaining a better life.

It’s taken us a long time to realize that by a business putting Profit first, eventually, that business will lose, as generally, they succumb to the greed factor. The single most important thing to do, at least for the viable business type we are in, is to HELP FIRST. When you can create a profitable business by helping others have a better life, the sustainability of that business can last a very long time. The greed is mostly eliminated, and the joy achieved by assisting others is immeasurable. To create this entire program, we have developed our business plan to put us in a very unique niche. Barrier-Free Contractors has taken on this niche, which most others have not. This enables us to create that helping/profit structure as above.

The Universal Design/Barrier-Free/Aging in Place homes look "normal" (Universal Design) but contain many not so obvious features that Seniors and the Disabled benefit greatly from.  Barrier Free living allows for no steps, roll-in showers, wider doorways, and many other not so noticeable yet fully accessible features that so many need. We also are retrofit specialists, creating the same concept of accessibility in existing homes. All of this leads to people achieving the overall independence needed to live in their house forever if they’d like (Aging in Place).

We would love the opportunity to explain this further to you or your group. Let us know if you have any questions. 

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