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Universal Design Allows Home Buyers To Age In Place

Cindy Spence

Marie Hammer (352) 392-1945

GAINESVILLE—Your first home can fit your needs for a lifetime, with new design techniques available to builders today, says a University of Florida housing and home environment specialist.

The techniques are part of a concept called “universal design,” which calls for a home to fit the needs of residents of all ages and abilities, said Marie Hammer, a professor in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

It’s a design that will become more popular as baby boomers hit their mid-50s and choose to “age in place,” Hammer said.

“With universal design, all spaces and all products in a home are usable and accessible to the able and the less-abled,” Hammer said. “The design features in universal housing are just as good for young people and children as for aging people. It’s a design for everybody, and it allows people to enjoy their home throughout their life.”

Homes that incorporate universal design have features that make for ease of living. A low-bar with leg room underneath in the kitchen, for example, can be used by children today and a wheelchair user later. Grab bars beside the bathtub can be used by toddlers, teens or adults with a temporary need such as a sprained ankle, and by elderly residents with a more permanent need.

Universal design also means a generous foyer, wider door openings that would accommodate a wheelchair, and a 5-foot turning radius in bathrooms and kitchens. These features are common in older homes that were constructed before builders began to mass-produce housing and cut down on space to save on materials.

“There’s no need to sacrifice style for universal design,” Hammer said. “In a way, it’s a return to more gracious living, larger spaces, more unobstructed spaces. Older homes, like cracker houses, had wide halls and wide doors. A lot of concepts in the older homes worked well for people of all ages.”

Hammer said universal design costs little on the front end, adding 1 to 5 percent to the cost of a home under construction. Retrofitting a homes is more expensive.

“When a home is under construction, substituting a shower with no threshold or putting a ramp in the garage or placing light switches and electrical outlets in accessible spots is easy and inexpensive,” Hammer said.

“Many of these features add a great deal to a home,” Hammer said. “While they may seem like conveniences now, they become a necessity later. Making room for aging, or even disability, allows for living in style now, and in comfort later.”

The products available have expanded in recent years and look less institutional. Grab bars, for example, now come in colors that match bathroom tile. Other design features are practically invisible, such as offset hinges that allow a door to open flat against a wall, making more room for a wheelchair or walker or simply moving furniture around.

“It’s prime time for this market,” Hammer said. “A lot is happening with the design of these items in the marketplace. New products are available and baby boomers are snapping them up.”

Pattie Glenn, senior vice president of research and development for Bosshardt Realty in Gainesville, agrees that the market is poised for a boom in homes that incorporate universal design. The few universally designed houses on the market are in demand because they are such rare finds, she said.

“We’re facing the largest segment of empty nesters and retirees in history. These people want to buy the same square footage, but they want the large, spacious rooms available in homes of universal design,” Glenn said. “These homes offer people a chance to plan for the future and they appeal to a larger segment of the market.

“As the trend grows and architects, builders and appraisers get in on this, universal design will become standard,” Glenn predicts.

The slab had already been poured on Glenn’s new home when she heard about universal design but she was eager to adjust her floor plans, adding wider doorways and a roll-in shower. Then her husband had unexpected back surgery and she thought, “Wow, we’re prepared for that.”

“You never know what’s going to happen in life,” Glenn said. “Why not plan for the future.”

Hammer agrees, and says that surveys show that older people generally want to stay put in their family homes as they age.

“People want to age in place and they can stay in their homes longer if their homes incorporate universal design,” Hammer said. “This is life cycle housing with a design that makes sense. These homes are just easier places to live.”