Home and Garden: Under ‘Universal’ principles, one design fits all

This article originally appeared in the Commercial Appeal on Nov. 25, 2011

David Vaughn’s mother-in-law isn’t in a wheelchair. She doesn’t use a walker or a cane. But when he recently remodeled the bathroom in her East Memphis home, he did it so that if she ever does have to use a wheelchair or a walker, the room will be ready for her.

“We incorporated a shower and a separate tub. We put the vanity in the middle, and we left enough floor space so that if she ever has to have a wheelchair, she could turn it around easily,” said Vaughn, general contractor and owner of David Vaughn Construction Co. Inc.

He would have done the same for any other client, regardless of age or ability.

“Anything we do, even if it’s a remodel for a client who’s 25 years old, we still make it accessible,” Vaughn said.

And that’s the No. 1 lesson Leslie Shankman-Cohn, a designer with Jill Hertz Interior Design and a specialist in

universal design, wants to get across to both homeowners and other design professionals.

“My first definition of universal design is basically that it isn’t geared just toward the aging population,” Cohn said. “Universal design is independent living for everybody.”

For example, she said, a young mom with a stroller in one hand, a baby on one hip and a diaper bag over her arm might have a tough time getting up the steps to her back door. Likewise, an older woman with grocery bags slung over the handles of her walker might have a tough time getting up the steps to her back door.

“They’re two people from different ends of the population spectrum, but they have the same issues,” Cohn said.

In bathroom design, in particular, Cohn and Vaughn — who have worked together on several projects — look to include features for homeowners of all ages that will “make their life easier and help them stay in their house and function as normally as possible,” Vaughn said.

Wide doorways, comfort-height toilets, “curbless” showers, paddle-style door and faucet handles, walls blocked for future grab bars — all of these features make a bathroom accessible for users of all ages.

“One thing I insist on doing in all my remodels is to go ahead and block all the walls for grab bars,” Cohn said. “It doesn’t add anything to the cost of the remodel — we’re talking plywood blocking — but once it’s in place, the whole bathroom is ready to accept these adjustments.”

In two recent bathroom remodel projects, Cohn included curbless showers, or showers without the typical 3- to 4-inch lip at the base of the doorway. Neither set of homeowners had physical disabilities that necessitated the feature — but both looked ahead and chose to add it anyway.

“God forbid you should break your leg — how do you get in then?” Cohn said.

These are issues that don’t even cross the minds of many homeowners, home buyers and even home builders. But Cohn wants to see that change.

“To have more homes designed with accessible features, that’s my goal,” she said. “It just makes more sense.”

That’s especially true since so much of the world’s population is, in fact, reaching an age where accessibility is an issue. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the world’s 65-and-older population will triple by mid-century to about 1.53 billion, or 16 percent of the total population.

Architect Joey Hagan, a principal with Memphis-based Architecture Inc., is looking to that future. Five-foot wheelchair turning radiuses, blocked walls for grab bars and cabinetry that can be easily modified for knee space are among the features he tries to include in what he calls the “forever house.”

“Integrating accessibility into a bathroom really is a smart thing to do now, and from a design standpoint it’s not only acceptable, but desirable,” he said.

Sue Elzey, a sales associate for Grant Home’s Sterling Place, said the development’s homes incorporate features designed to be accessible for everybody, whether the 55-plus buyers the community targets or their young grandchildren.

“I think there’s a high demand for it,” she said.

Vaughn, for his part, recently worked with a young client who chose to add a handicapped-accessible in-law suite, not because he needed it himself, but for future resale value. That marks a big change in mindset from the past, when accessibility features were considered limiting for resale.

Plus, Cohn said, many consumers now are also concerned about “visitability,” meaning they’re seeking features like downstairs guest rooms that are accessible for older relatives.

In the East Memphis home of clients Deborah and Steven Bilsky, Cohn worked with the family to design an accessible master bath after the clients faced the experience of caring for an aging parent at the end of his life.

“His issues raised their consciousness about what they needed,” Cohn said.

The Bilskys added a curbless shower, a comfort-height toilet, blocked walls for grab bars, a redesigned tub deck for ease of entry, a raised vanity and outlets inside the cabinetry for ease of appliance use, among other features.

“If we could get more housing stock built with universal design principles, people could stay in their homes longer and be independent longer,” Cohn said. “It lowers insurance rates, lowers medical rates because people are independent and therefore vital and thriving. It reduces excess building stock on the market. It means less remodeling in the future, less stuff in landfills because houses are already built to be acceptable and accessible.”


image courtesy of Commercial Appeal