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Universal Design Can Help People Age in Their Homes

Fewer steps, wider doors may prevent having to move

Seattle contractor Leif Jackson recently helped a couple remodel their one-story home to make the kitchen, bathroom and hallways accessible for the wife's wheelchair.

See also: What is Universal Design?

The tricky part? "It was really important to the client that things not look, in her word, 'gimpy,' " said Jackson, who owns Jackson Remodeling with his brother, Erik.

Jackson's solution was to tap into the increasingly popular concept of universal design, which makes homes accessible for young and old, healthy and infirm, without making the homes look sterile and cold.

The trend is fueled partly by the economic downturn that has propelled people to remodel rather than buy a new home. But the real engine behind universal design is a desire to age in place.

An AARP national survey in November found that two-thirds of those age 45 and older want to remain in their homes as long as possible. The percentages tend to increase, up to 90 percent, as people age. Architects and designers have responded by creating ways to make homes safe and livable for all stages of life.

Once an issue just for older people, universal design is now more broadly applied to all ages and all stages of life.

"It's becoming increasingly more popular and available," said AARP spokeswoman Nancy Thompson.

Jackson sees more people among his clients planning ahead, "even if they're able-bodied now. They want to age as much as possible in their own homes."

Aging boomers have pushed architects to focus more on multigenerational housing, said Grace Kim, cofounder of Schemata Workshop in Seattle. Boomers are eager for designs that allow them to live with their kids or parents. They want space for a stroller or a wheelchair but don't want a home that looks "scary and institutional and weird," Kim said. "Universal design isn't just about grab bars."

Next: What's in a winning Universal Design home? >>

Schemata Workshop received a 2010 Livable Communities Award from AARP and the National Association of Home Builders for Daybreak, the intergenerational cohousing development she designed in Portland, Ore. The 30 townhouses and apartments are built around a shared common area. The homes feature entries without steps, lever-style door handles and durable flooring that's stroller- and wheelchair-friendly. The common space has a kitchen and dining room, a kids' playroom, laundry facilities, indoor bike parking, a yoga studio and a craft room.

By making homes more accessible for older people and those with disabilities, "you're making it easier for everybody."

By making homes more accessible for older people and those with disabilities, "you're making it easier for everybody," Kim said. "A lot of designers and architects are starting to think about it more."

Michelle Molloy, founder of Penates Design in Seattle, said the technology is changing quickly as manufacturers respond to the demand by developing universal design components such as adjustable and remote-controlled light fixtures.

Her design team won a national award last fall for her remodel of a 1960s bathroom in Snohomish, Wash.

The homeowner, Mary Waggoner, wanted to make sure her aging and disabled parents could visit but found that the small bathroom couldn't accommodate her mother's wheelchair.

Waggoner was one of two winners in last year's "Renovation Remodel Room Makeover" contest, sponsored by AARP. The renovation included slip-resistant flooring, a hands-free toilet and a walk-in shower.

"I just wanted it to be safer," she said. "It turned out that not only is it safer, but it's beautiful."

Waggoner, 63, said the modifications will have another benefit.

"I will be able to stay in that home longer than I might have been able to otherwise."

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Neal Thompson is a writer living in Seattle.