Making It Easy

[Ask a friend who is in a cast, following an accident, how she manages in her split-level home. Visit a relative with severe arthritis, who struggles with doorknobs or finds his walker a tight fit in the hallway. Chat with a colleague who has had a knee replacement and is fearful of getting into the bathtub. Each is dealing with a home environment that complicates daily life. They have encountered the need for universal design.

The goal of universal design is to create products and environments for all people, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. They should be useful and marketable to people of diverse abilities, flexible in use, simple and intuitive, with tolerance for error and require low physical effort. Scissors that can be used by right- or left-handed people is an example of a product designed for wider use. Thermostat dials with large numerals and color contrast is another.

But it is in the home that universal design is most important. “Housing For The Lifespan of All People,” a guidebook by the Center for Urban Design, captures the intent of universal design. Housing should be suitable through a variety of life stages. Though the concept is not yet a household word, universal design is widely accepted in the development community. “Most new housing developments, both private and public, have accessible features,” says Stephen Burnell, of Burnell-Johnson Architects, of Manchester. “What are developers concerned about? Selling their units. Accessibility sells. People are living longer, and they want to be able to remain in their homes.”

The Gove Group, a Seacoast area real estate firm, offers housing for “active older adults” in Durham, Hampton and Stratham. These high-end duplex and condominium-style homes incorporate many elements of universal design. The accessible, open-concept first floor has no level changes. Doors to master bedroom closets and bathrooms are wider than the standard. Hallways are wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Laundry equipment is on the first floor. Levers replace doorknobs. Intercom systems can be included. The primary motivation for most buyers is to be in an adult-only neighborhood, says Betsy Doolan of the Gove Group. But universal design features make an attractive home, easy to live in and care for.

“We have always designed for accessibility,” says Stephen Burnell. “We want all units to be accessible, though site constraints, such as the slope of the land, may make that impossible. Townhouses are often difficult to design for accessibility. In a single building with an elevator, we make every unit accessible or adaptable.” An adaptable unit is one that can be made accessible without renovation. The bathroom is large, but without turnaround space. Cabinets can be lowered; removable fronts allow for wheelchair access to sinks.

There is a distinction, though, between accessible and fully accessible. In housing built with public funding, 5 percent of the units must be fully accessible. These units will have bathrooms with space for wheelchair turnaround, wider doors, specially designed showers, mirrors, cabinets and sinks and electric outlets at a level that can be reached from a seated position. Of these units, 2 percent will be further equipped for persons with sensory impairment. They might include, for example, alarm systems with lights or an alarm that vibrates. The Manchester Fire Department requires a voice evacuation system, with a speaker in the unit.

Ken Edwards is the assistant executive director of the Manchester Housing Authority, which manages more than 800 units for elders and adults with disabilities. Some of the housing was constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, well before universal design became the standard. Edwards says, “It is difficult and costly to make these older units accessible. But as we modernize, we do so. We’ve replaced doorknobs with levers. We’ve increased lighting. We make doorways barrier free. We have electric doors at all public entrances.”

What design features are of greatest interest to consumers? More spacious bathrooms with large showers are in demand, from both homeowners and tenants. A level entryway and good exterior lighting are important, whatever the level of ability.

It’s easy to see the wisdom of universal design in a multi-unit complex. It provides greater independence for a wide range of people. But what about the majority of New Hampshire residents, living in single family homes, many of them from 50 to 150 years old. They were not designed for “the lifespan of all people.” To make the home barrier-free would require a major investment, if it could be done. There are, however, principles of universal design that can be applied without major renovation. Tub and shower units with built-in seats are available. Pocket doors can replace doors that interfere with mobility. Motion-sensitive lights, both outdoor and interior, are safety features. Individually programmed voice reminder systems can be installed. [See list of certified aging in place building specialists.]

Edwards and Burnell agree building for the life span is not a significant cost factor in new construction. It is, however, when renovating older properties. But Burnell believes that there is a market for retrofitting. “There will be more special needs to be met,” he says, “and when the demand is there the market will respond.”