People rarely ask for it by name, but it’s clear from their requests that many homeowners want universal design in their homes.

According to the AARP, 89 percent of the 55-and-older Baby Boomer population want to stay in their homes as long as possible. So they’re asking for things like barrier-free showers, wider doorways, and bathroom walls that can accommodate grab bars in the future—whatever will help them "age in place."

What is Universal Design?

Universal design (UD) is meant to make that possible. Put simply, UD is design that works for many levels of physical ability. A quick example: Levers are much easier to maneuver than round knobs. That goes for almost everyone, including people with low mobility, arthritis sufferers, children or even just someone with his or her hands full. UD advocates simply call it "smart design."

What makes smart-design concepts so smart is that they aim to be seamless and aesthetically pleasing, leaving the days of awkward spacing and institutional-looking features a thing of the past.

"With every first floor master floor plan we build, we now open up a dialogue about UD, showing buyers how it will facilitate aging in place without sacrificing aesthetics," says Jennifer Townsend of the Aristo Company, a Fairport-based homebuilder that has specialized in building for Baby Boomers for more than 30 years. "We always remind buyers that you never know when the need for UD concepts will arise. Consider something as simple as a broken ankle or a visiting friend/parent who has ambulatory needs."

But some people think about the idea too late. Builders say that using UD ideas isn’t difficult, but planning for it has to fall into the design timeline at the right time: the very beginning. Architect and builder should work as a team to incorporate UD elements. According to Townsend, finding a builder that already offers UD packages and addresses them early in the process is helpful: It shows the builder is prepared to incorporate these concepts seamlessly, which is one of the appeals of this design trend.

For local builders, AARP helps teach about aging in place and UD through its work with the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) designation program. This curriculum teaches techniques for working with clients of multiple abilities/needs and teaches specific home-modification measures to accommodate these needs.

Several UD elements are very simple and can be worked into many overall home designs. For example: Wider hallways, prepping for future grab bars, touch-controlled faucets, step-free entries, handheld shower sprays, barrier-free showers, lever door handles instead of knobs, and appliances such as dishwashers and microwave ovens in drawers.

Again, such features make living in a home more convenient for everyone, from children to the elderly. Smart design for smart living.

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