By Guest Blogger Susan M. Duncan, Instructor, Executive Certificate in Home Modification, National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification, University of Southern California; Disability Blog, February 23, 2011
"I wish I had a pretty house, the littlest ever seen, with funny little red walls and roof of mossy green." Do you remember Wendy singing this verse in The Story of Peter Pan? "Peter Pan housing" is often referred to as homes designed for people who are never going to grow up and never going to grow old. How different is that from the military’s ideal subject of the six-foot, 190-pound, healthy, strong, 20-year-old male, which has been used for decades as a basis for the design of products and environments we live with today?
Universal Design (UD) is the primary framework that consciously designs to accommodate peoples’ diverse differences. It focuses on how people actually use a space and how best to utilize its features to deliver people-oriented benefits. For example, work surfaces at varying heights that can accommodate little Johnny assisting his 5’10” mother in baking cookies. You get the picture.
The foremost market benefit of UD is lifestyle enhancement through family interactions (i.e. to be culturally sustainable, then secondarily to fulfill a physical need). Architectural design features influence the quality of our lives and can either support or hinder our ability to live in our homes, comfortably, conveniently and independently.
I had the opportunity to teach an interior design class project assignment required in the Seattle Pacific University course, Universal Design in Housing. The students were asked to redesign a “traditional” floor plan previously developed by a local builder. The primary goal was to redesign the spaces in the home using UD principles, in addition to other specific design goals. The students presented the revised plan to the builder for approval. The new plan was constructed and sold to a family with small children who greatly appreciated the open floor plan.
In my opinion, UD principles and products should be applied to all new construction to create a paradigm shift in the current housing stock. For example, how will we provide the millions of aging Baby Boomers seeking to downsize with homes designed to support differing stages, ages and circumstances?
Fortunately, many resources exist that can assist professionals and consumers with incorporating UD features in remodeled or new homes. Of particular interest is The Center for Universal Design’s Gold, Silver and Bronze Universal Design Features in Houses list.
One example of UD is "vertical circulation" – a recommendation for a two-story dwelling that provides at least one set of stacked closets, pantries or storage spaces with a knock-out floor. This "invisible UD feature" can later become a shaft for an elevator/vertical platform installation – at a great cost savings. With today’s lot size restrictions, we are faced with multi-story homes that can be designed initially with this feature to enhance the quality of life and ease of mind for the future homeowners.
Beyond new housing, the inclusion of UD in home remodeling projects is vital. Professionals hired to provide services to a homeowner (e.g., an architect, designer or contractor) should have the knowledge to inform the homeowner of available options that will enhance the final project. Approaches to UD should become proactive instead of reactive, and ultimately, support long term livability. This may include a simple suggestion of widening all applicable doorways to be three feet (3’0) not only to ease moving furniture, but also to later accommodate a person using a wheelchair or walker.
While UD is applicable in general home remodeling projects, "home modifications" address the specific needs of residents who may require special, custom adaptations. The installation of a grab bar that supports a user with a balance issue is a "home modification," whereas reinforcement or blocking in the bathroom wall is considered a UD feature that later has the potential to support multiple user needs.
The application of the nuances to create seamless and supportive solutions takes some time to learn and may prove to be challenging. Professionals may seek to expand their knowledge base through professional education programs, such as the online Executive Certificate in Home Modification Program offered through the National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification at the University of Southern California.
To create a paradigm shift in supportive housing, we need more than Tinker Bell, Peter Pan and the traditional model that has been used for decades. We need to collectively work together to ensure housing provides a quality of life we have come to expect.
Additional UD Resources:
Susan M. Duncan is an instructor for the Executive Certificate in Home Modification Program at the National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification at the University of Southern California. She is also an RN; designer; founder of The ABCs of Accessibility,® Inc. and the Accessibility Manager for the City of Bend, OR.