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KC man promotes universal housing design

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October 03, 2003
Anna Jaffe, Contributing Writer
Kansas City Jewish Chronicle

Paul Levy is on a mission. Levy, the executive director of the Universal Design Housing Network, is working to make housing accessible and usable for all people - regardless of age, size or ability.

He's promoting a concept called universal design.

"In a traditional-design home, you adapt to the home," said Levy, a Kansas City native who grew up at Kehilath Israel Synagogue. "In a universal-design home, it's already adapted to you. It doesn't matter who you are or what stage you are in your physical or mental condition."

Levy founded the Universal Design Housing Network (UDHN) five and one-half years ago to educate people about the benefits of universal design and to encourage its implementation.

A home that is built using universal-design principles incorporates simple design changes that make life easier, more comfortable and safer for most people.

"Traditional homes with the stairs and narrow interior doorways set up a lot of built-in obstacles," Levy said.

Universal-design homes eliminate as many barriers as possible. They include modifications such as no-step entries, wider doorways, lever-style door and faucet handles and thermostats set at wheelchair eye level.

"From childhood up to post-retirement, this home makes everything usable, giving the home and residents a lease on life for as long as they wish," said Levy in a UDHN press release.

A personal battle

For Levy, the battle implement universal design is personal. He suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and is wheelchair-bound.

"I was first diagnosed with MS in 1966," Levy said. "But I was able to finish college and work actively for 10 years before I was slowed down. Then I had to switch gears."

Levy started his career in journalism, working as a newspaper editor and then moving into public relations and advertising.

"I was in everybody's world," he said. "I was out there chasing the same dreams and not seeing the obstacles that other people faced."

By the mid-1970s Levy's physical health had begun to deteriorate. The change turned his life upside down.

"It woke me up that there was so much that had to be done," he said. "I still had the same skills and talents. But my physical world changed."

Levy left journalism to work on behalf of people with disabilities. Since 1978, he has helped to create five agencies that serve the disabled, including UDHN and the independent-living services program run by the Rehabilitation Institute.

Levy became aware of the concept of universal design in the late 1980s. And he's been a major proponent ever since.

"To bring all people together and have them live on the same scale, you've got to do something about making more of what we do universal," he said. "Universal design makes products and designs more usable for most people."

A universal environment

Universal design is garnering an increasing amount of attention across the country.

Ten states have already passed legislation requiring the design method to be implemented in housing built with public funds.

And universal-design homes are beginning to pop up all over the Kansas City area and in other major cities.

The most recent issue of the American Association of Retired Persons magazine featured an article on the subject. It focused on the battle that James Joseph Pirkl, the father of universal design, has waged to bring the philosophy into the mainstream.

In the piece, Pirkl said: "If a teenager sprains his ankle, he's disabled for a while. If a woman gets pregnant, her mobility is temporarily affected. We all have some level of disability during our lives. No design will serve 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time, but we're trying to make sure no one group is excessively penalized by the design."

For Levy, the ultimate goal is to create a universal environment in and outside the home.

"We're looking at blending into the community and making the community, at least in part, universal," he said.

The Americans with Disabilities Act has moved the country in that direction, Levy said. ADA mandated equal access in a number of critical areas, including employment, transportation and public accommodations. But it did not address housing.

"Now it's our turn to work on the housing arena," Levy said.

Designing a home for a lifetime

The Universal Design Housing Network is sponsoring a conference from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 14, at the Marriott Allis Plaza in Kansas City, Mo. The day of programming is geared to educate professionals in the design and construction industry about the benefits of universal design. For more information, call Paul Levy, (816) 751-7898.
 

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