Lifestyle DesignOne developer in Maryland calls it "lifestyle design." A group of developers in Georgia calls it "easy living." And Pima County, Ariz., calls it the law.
"It" is a style of home design that includes smooth, stair-less entries to single-family homes; wide hallways and doorways inside; door handles other than knobs, which can be hard to grasp and turn; and easy-to-reach light switches and electrical outlets.
Such amenities are known as universal design. Seniors and disabled groups have driven the 10-year-old movement, but the design features make a home comfortable for anybody, its advocates say.
Comfortable for EveryoneA new study from the National Association of Homebuilders confirms that builders who target homebuyers aged 50 and over already include these features in their new construction. Universal design advocates want the pattern extended to all new homes, regardless of who will live in them.
Pima County in southern Arizona is paving the way. A new ordinance took effect there in October that requires builders to include universal design features in every new home they build. The ordinance survived two court challenges from homebuilders.
"(The ordinance) gives people the ability to stay within their homes so they don't have to be institutionalized," deputy county attorney Christopher Straub says.
Modern ConvenienceBuilders and designers agree that universal design is still nowhere near the mainstream. The biggest problem, they say, is marketing.
"There's almost no market for this. There's intense need, but no demand," says Louis Tenenbaum, a remodeling consultant in Potomac, Md., whose universal design concepts have been featured on Home & Garden Television.
The reason, Tenenbaum and others say, is that no one wants to think of himself as someone who would ever get old and develop a disability, which universal design was created to serve.
Accessibility to All RoomsSo builders are taking a new tack, emphasizing other needs over those of seniors or the disabled in promoting universal design. In Georgia, it's called the "EasyLiving Home."
"Whether it is strollers, grocery carts, wheelchairs, 330-pound football players or heavy furniture and equipment, all will move easily in an EasyLiving Home," the brochure says.
Interior designer Irma Dobkin in Chevy Chase, Md., knows firsthand the value of having a home that is "visitable" by people with disabilities.
Dobkin's elderly parents told her 20 years ago that they could no longer visit her "magnificent home" because there were too many obstacles for her mother's wheelchair, especially the narrow hallways and tiny bathroom entrances.
"My home demeaned my parents," says Dobkin. "It was such a profound epiphany."
Feel Better, Look BetterDobkin proceeded to overhaul her house to make it accessible. She turned the project into a laboratory for other designers to illustrate how to make a home beautiful and accessible without looking institutional.
Washington-area developer Michael Rose routinely gets questions from customers asking him why his high-end homes are "so much nicer" than others in that price range. The answer is universal design.
His hallways are four feet wide instead of the standard three. The front entry doesn't have a lot of steep steps and "an ugly wrought-iron railing." There's a master bedroom suite on the first floor, along with a second hall closet — which is great for storage but also could convert into a future elevator for a wheelchair, if the need arises.
Rose, who is a paraplegic, calls it "lifestyle design." "It feels better; it looks better," he says of the features.
No ThresholdsAnd the demand will come, even if people don't want to admit they're getting older.
"The builders are building for that market. The majority of people don't want to go to a destination only for senior citizens. They want to stay in their home," Rose says.
Tenenbaum, the remodeling consultant, likens the universal design "revolution" to curbside recycling. It took recycling advocates 20 years to get that service into most neighborhoods.
Universal design as a movement is roughly 10 years old — halfway to the mainstream, he says. "In 2013, we'll be there."
On the web:
Georgia's EasyLiving Homes: www.easylivinghome.org
Michael Rose's Lifestyle Design: www.mtr.com/designbuild/lifestyle_design.htm
AARP's Universal Design site: www.aarp.org/universalhome
North Carolina State University's Center for Universal Design: www.design.ncsu.edu/cud
Concrete Change, a group tracking the Universal Design movement: www.concretechange.org