Universal Design creates age-in-place space

Mary G. Pepitone
Universal Uclick

Universal design has universal appeal for homeowners of all ages. New construction residences that utilize universal design concepts allow people to age in place, says Steve Soriano, executive vice president of Robson Resort Communities, based in Sun Lakes, Arizona. Robson Resort Communities include seven retirement developments featuring approximately 40,000 homes located throughout Arizona and Texas.

“People are starting to think about where they want to live long-term before they retire,” Soriano says. “The key is to consider finding the home you want to live in before issues like walking the stairs or needing assisted-living care take over.”

In residences, universal design refers to a broad spectrum of modifications that can inherently make a space more livable and accessible for both aging and differently abled individuals. Universal design can be the embodiment of one-level living with wider doors, an entrance with no stairs, nonslip flooring and readily accessible switches and home controls.

Soriano says considering how one can grow older in a home with certain amenities is, hopefully, like purchasing an insurance policy that is never used. “A house with good design just works for its inhabitants, no matter if they are able-bodied or in a wheelchair,” he says. “You hope that — as you age — you remain active, but in the event where one may need physical accommodations, having a home design that has planned for these possible eventualities can make all the difference.”

As people age and move into the retirement phase of life, they may find themselves downsizing from a large family home and moving into a housing development, such as one built by Robson Resort Communities. These residential developments can feature a central clubhouse, swimming pools, golf course and social calendar programmed with activities, along with newly built homes inhabited by a community of like-minded active adults.

But if relocating to an all-inclusive retirement development isn’t an option as you age, finding and/or renovating an existing home to accommodate one-level living can also be a figurative step in the right direction toward implementing universal design concepts.

Open spaces

If homeowners are investing in smaller, ranch-style homes, they want to utilize every square foot of space in it. Anecdotally called “smart-sized” homes, these residences have an open floor plan design that ideally does not have a hallway, which many architects consider a waste of livable square footage.

One-level living starts on the way to the front door, Soriano says. “It takes more space to grade a pathway to the front door that doesn’t require a step up,” he says. “The site needs to be prepared properly, so that the pathway gradually slopes away from the house and drains away from the foundation.”

Passages with wide clearances are also essential around the kitchen island and bathroom vanity. “It’s important to have a one-level kitchen island that has a maximum clearance on all sides,” Soriano says. “In the master bathroom, we design a cut-out in the master bath vanity so it is wheelchair accessible.”

Clean Design

Today’s universal design principles have cleaned up their act when it comes to accessibility and safety around plumbed structures. Levered door and faucet handles are easier to open and close than traditional round knobs.

There’s no mudslinging over locating a laundry/mudroom between the kitchen and garage in homes with universal design. People can deposit items in the mudroom before entering the house, and laundry doesn’t require scaling stairs.

In the master bath, shower doors are built wider and grab bars can be cleverly disguised as towel bars, which make accommodations accessible without a sterile, institutional look. A low-threshold shower works for people of all ages, but one of its most important design components has nothing to do with water pressure, Soriano says.

“When we build a master bath, we always form a concrete shower seat, so people can sit down and safely shower with a telescoping fixture,” he says. “We have found that a zero-threshold shower is problematic, but if folks have one, they need to be very careful that water doesn’t leak onto the floor.”

Ceramic or porcelain tile is the flooring of choice for master baths because of its durability, cleanability, water- and slip-resistance. While porcelain tile that looks like stone remains a popular choice, manufacturers have moved beyond standard square fare. Porcelain tiles now have a wood look with linear plank sizes and slip-resistant finishes, and can also be used for exterior applications. This gives homeowners the design freedom to create visual connectivity between the interior and exterior of the home.

Bringing the outside indoors

Creating an environment that encourages outdoor living is what many newly constructed homes strive to achieve, Soriano says. “Homes that have a kitchen which flows into a family or great room are an informal and fun way to entertain,” he says. “With sliding doors from the great room to an outdoor patio, gatherings can just spill outside into the courtyard area.”

An attached patio extends a house into the landscape and can be furnished like an outdoor room. Especially in warmer climates, having an outdoor “room” expands a home’s livable space.

Declutter before downsizing

One of the tenets of universal design is to have a clear space to allow for greater accessibility and mobility. So it’s important to clear away the clutter.

“Getting rid of things you no longer need or giving items away to others who will treasure them is a great way to cut down on housekeeping, too,” Soriano says. “With less stuff to maintain, you will have more time to pursue other things that interest you.”