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Universal Design - Making Homes Accessible
By theParklander / January 1, 2014

The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990, opened the door -- quite literally -- to a new era of barrier-free living for people with handicaps. But, long before that measure was put to paper, a group of architects and contractors had joined forces to develop an even more sweeping concept in accessibility.

Called universal design, its aim is to produce "buildings, products and environments inherently accessible to older people, people with disabilities and people without disabilities," says Robert L. Mace, program director of the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, who coined the phrase for the architectural notion that takes into account the full range of human diversity...

Obviously, says Mace, "There is a great deal of overlap between what is required under the ADA and what would be suggested by universal design, but there are also differences. The ADA focuses solely on the civil rights of people with disabilities, while universal design strives to meet the best practices for design, which are always evolving and improving as we continue to learn more about how to best meet different people's needs."

He says Selwyn Goldsmith, author of the 1963 book, Designing for the Disabled, pioneered the concept of free access for the disabled. "His most significant achievement was the creation of the dropped curb," says Goldsmith.

It is a standard feature for disability access. But the same redesigned curb essential for people in wheelchairs can also be used by people pushing strollers or wheeling luggage, he notes. At home, cabinets with pull-out shelves and kitchen counters placed at elevated heights are not just for the disabled, but for those who cannot bend over countertops for long periods, due to age or physical limitations.

"Everyone, even the most able-bodied person, passes through childhood, periods of temporary illness, injury and old age," Mace adds. "By designing for this human diversity, we can create things that will be easier for all people to use."

Coral Springs architect Donald Lee Morris says he has received "a fairly significant number" of requests for universal design-style renovations, mainly as retrofits for existing houses. "I am working on making changes to a home in Boca Raton where a child is in a wheelchair," says Morris.

The alterations will benefit family members and a nanny by making it easier to meet the youngster's needs. Morris says he is designing a 2,000-square-foot addition to the home that will address a number of accessibility issues. His plan calls for a track along the ceiling that will carry the child in his wheelchair by motorized harness to various "stations" in the house. The youth "also has an independent, multi-purpose room for computer use." The bathroom will have a no-step shower and a mirror that tilts, so the surface faces the young man straight on.

Universal design can apply to all types of structures, both residential and commercial. Buildings can be refitted with universally designed accoutrements and plans for new structures can be drafted accordingly.

At least one company makes exclusive use of the universal design philosophy. Sam Farber, founder of kitchen utensil manufacturer, OXO, says the firm makes products that virtually anyone can use. "That means designing items for young and old, male and female, lefties and righties, and people with special needs," he says.

Architect Morris reports new growth in his own business coming from sources excited by the universal design concept. "Recently," he says, "I have been getting more jobs from people asking for features in their homes that are geared toward age and human functionality."

Mace agrees: "As life expectancy rises and modern medicine increases the survival rate of those with significant injuries, illnesses and birth defects, there is a growing need and interest in designing products that are aesthetically pleasing and usable by everyone."




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