More MS news articles for Jan 2002

Design opens doors for buyers who are physically disabled

Published December 30, 2001
By Rick Stefchik, Saint Paul Pioneer Press
Knight Ridder/Tribune

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A bigger front door. Wider hallways. Lower cabinets. Higher appliances. Deeper stair treads. These are just some of the elements that can be found in homes built or remodeled with a Universal Design concept.

Universal Design, or UD as it is often called, is a simple yet practical approach to creating living spaces that work as well for people with physical limitations as for those who do not have disabilities.

Margaret and Carl Christenson's home is now a showcase for Universal Design, but it didn't used to be.

When Carl Christenson became disabled in 1991, the couple realized that their multilevel home would no longer work. They bought a Fridley, Minn., bungalow, gutted it and redesigned it with UD features.

"We made it accessible for somebody in or not in a wheelchair," said Margaret Christenson, an occupational therapist and founder of Lifease Inc., a New Brighton, Minn., software company that specializes in providing solutions to peoples' living difficulties.

"For instance, the dishwasher and dryer are raised, so you don't have to bend over," Christenson says. "The door handles are much easier to open, there are wide spaces in the kitchen, the knobs on the stove are in the front so you don't have to reach over the burners -- all of that is incorporated."

What makes these design features universal is that they can be a benefit to anyone, not just the aging or disabled. Carl Christenson no longer uses a wheelchair, but the house is still meeting the couples' needs.

Lifease did a survey to gauge the general public's interest in Universal Design principles, and the results were positive across the board.

"You don't see any difference in gender or age in the responses," Christenson says. "It's the `duh' principle -- why not? Why not make it this way? If it's easier, it's easier. [Building berms or ramps] at your front door, with no threshold, so you don't have a step to trip over, makes it easier to roll luggage out, or a stroller with a child, or to carry out the garbage."

One of the main forces behind the move to make homes more user friendly is -- not surprisingly -- the American Association of Retired Persons. Leon Harper, a senior housing specialist for AARP, says his organization's goal is to eliminate the stigma of designing a home for ease of use. AARP members are increasingly interested in being able to stay in their homes longer, but they don't want to be thought of as incapacitated.

"What was out there was in the specialty arena," says Harper of the designs and products for assisted living. "If you wanted to be accommodated, you went into the specialty arena to get grab bars and things medically or institutionally oriented. You had to contact the handicapped or aging people to get it.

"People didn't want to have to say, `I'm one of those old, frail, disabled people who needs help.' They wanted to say, `I want to enhance my comfort and safety without being stigmatized. That enhances my lifestyle and independence without screaming out whatever the stigma is.' "

AARP is attempting to create market demand for Universal Design homes and products so that, eventually, all builders will provide easier living spaces.

"We have enough of a membership that, once we turned them around and got them thinking about it in a positive way, we changed the demand, and people started to ask for these things," Harper says. "We were able to make that happen by getting the aging and disability networks to use the mainstream media. People say, `I saw a bathroom I really like, and I still want to stay in my house, but I want this. Where can I get it?'

"We created an evolving demand that's outstripping the industry's ability to respond to it. They're having to quickly learn about the Universal Design things people are talking about."

AARP is working with the National Association of Homebuilders and Remodelers to develop curriculum to teach remodelers more about Universal Design.

Harper recently returned from the annual meeting of the Manufactured Housing Association in Dallas, where he says a prototype of a UD manufactured home was "a tremendous hit."

"People were lined up to see that house, to see how spacious and comfortable it is," Harper said.

He predicted that more new-home construction will incorporate Universal Design, noting that a company in Atlanta is building a 290-home complex, with all the units featuring Universal Design.

Phil Dommer, president of Philip Stephen Companies and founder of the UD Homes Design Center, learned of the UD principles while attending the University of Minnesota and has been focusing on the concept professionally since 1994.

"I had an administrative assistant who worked with me whose son used a wheelchair," Dommer said. "It dawned on me that she and her son never participated in a lot of housing events, and the reason was her son couldn't get into the houses. This is easy to solve if you take a look at it."

Dommer's firm now approaches UD, he says, "from a lifestyle perspective, rather than a need-driven solution."

"People desire family connections," Dommer says. "The aging baby boomer hopes to stay connected to family and active in the community. Universal Design is a way to achieve that with a lot of style and efficiency."

"What's exciting about UD is we're creating an intersection between health care, service-delivery systems and the home-building industry and bringing it together in the traditional single-family home," Dommer says.

Copyright © 2001, Chicago Tribune