Each day over 10,000 people turn 65, according to the Pew Research Center.

Many of them will be looking for ways to stay in their homes as they age and possibly become less able.

This could be a problem.

Housing has not traditionally been built with an eye toward lifetime use. A lot of homes that were built in the 1940s were a series of little boxes: small rooms with tiny hallways and high cabinetry. Over the years, as lot sizes continued to shrink, more two- and three-story homes were built, demanding long staircases.

Most homes have stairs as a part of the entrances and exits. Even as awareness was built with the passing of the American Disabilities Act, which provided building and design guidelines for public facilities to give greater access to people with disabilities, little concern was given to private residences.

“There are no ADA guidelines for residential construction,” said Lewis Sadler, a builder and architect with Sadler Construction Company, www.sadlerconstructionnc.com.

Sadler is also a member of the Raleigh Home Builders Association’s Care Council. Its job is to educate the public about creating homes that are sensible for the duration of a life. His architectural plans company, Lifestage Home Design, focuses on universal design and sells plans across the country.

Sadler said he sees more and more people, especially boomers and retirees, who have to spend a large portion of their budget to either renovate their existing homes or build a new one for accessibility and use. “As builders, we’re doing something wrong here. The answer isn’t to continue to renovate, but to build it with a universal design in the first place.”

Universal design is a term coined at N.C . State University’s School of Design. In simple language it means to maximize the use of a home for the maximum number of people who may enter or live in the home over their lifetime.

Universal design takes into account all of the little details of living in a home and seeks to develop an ease of use.

Sadler considers the basics: “You have to be able to get in and out of it and you have to be able to use the bathroom. People focus on a lot of different things when building such as if the house will be environmentally green. These are important, but if you can’t get in and out of it, what good is it? First, make it accessible and usable; then make it healthy.”

The concept of universal design extends from the first building block to the furnishings in a home. It provides a common sense approach to functional living environments for today and for independent living in the future, including those using wheelchairs.

“It’s all about ease of use,” said Steve McSwain, owner of Maplestone Construction in Winston-Salem, www.maplestone.biz. “It calls for a more open concept; a flow that works well with the environment you are in; not making things complicated from a materials standpoint.”

It’s easier to plan when you are building a new home. Elevator shafts can be installed inside of closet space with temporary bottoms to be completed and utilized when needed. In the bathrooms, blocking can be installed for future grab bars. That way, structural support is ready. Otherwise, you have to cut through the sheetrock or tile to get the bar attached to the structural support framing in the wall. Padded and heated flooring can be installed. Step-less entrances into the house, wider hallways and doors, and a curb-less shower that is wheelchair accessible are all basic for the universally designed house.

Here are some key design elements in a universal design:

  • Single-level home designs
  • Open living floor plans
  • Elevators
  • Large bathrooms with walk-in tubs
  • Wheelchair-accessible kitchens and bathrooms
  • Eye-level cabinetry and storage with pull-out and pull-down shelving
  • Multi-level food preparation areas
  • Smart home systems for remote access to appliances, lighting, windows, blinds, sound and alarm systems
  • Raised heights for toilets and bathroom counters
  • Vertical platform (or wheelchair) lifts
  • Stylish grab bars
  • Use of handles or levers instead of knobs
  • Flooring that is easy on the knees and hips and that’s usable with walkers and wheelchairs
  • Transitions between floors
  • Convenient wall switches
  • Height of medicine cabinets and towel racks

Universal design also looks at traffic patterns; designing interiors with fewer steps and elevation changes, according to McSwain.

“Put the toilet closer to the bedroom, for instance. With cabinets, use built-ins with rounded edges. Use textures and materials that are easier to clean and maintain.” Even natural light is a part of universal design, creating an atmosphere of enjoyment and greater safety,” said Sadler.

Younger buyers want more adaptable space and lots of storage. Children can benefit from universal design with placement of shelving, storage, microwaves built into cabinetry on the lower level and switches. Even low VOC paint and carpet are part of universal design and can benefit growing children.

The cost to build a universal designed house is 3 to 5 percent higher than a traditional home, Sadler said.

Average cost to retrofit a bathroom for universal design is $18,000 to $40,000; and a kitchen is $35,000 to $50,000 or more, McSwain said.

An added benefit to owning a home that was either built as or remodeled to a universal design is that, once on the market, it is usable for the vast majority of the buying public.

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