Accessibility is key in this universally designed kitchen where multi-level countertops and high toe kicks allow seated users to move closer to work surfaces.
Golden Rule Builders Accessibility is key in this universally designed kitchen where multi-level countertops and high toe kicks allow seated users to move closer to work surfaces.

Bill McHugh has a story to tell, one that will resonate with a lot of baby boomers.

The Austin, Texas, custom builder’s mother was turning 80, and she wanted to remain independent, a challenge for McHugh, who knew a lot about building but not so much about designing for the challenges faced by an aging body.

What he found was universal design (UD)—a philosophy that calls for the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

McHugh learned as he went along, cobbling together information from a variety of sources. He did so well on his mother’s house that it sparked his interest in doing more homes with universal design.

Customers are coming, he says. In the past year, his company, Tier1 Group, has completed five UD remodeling projects. He only wishes dealers would key in. Finding suppliers was a challenge on that first job and remains so now, he says.

“Local suppliers didn’t have the stuff. The dealers had no clue. They just don’t,” McHugh says. “In the past few years, they’ve just been trying to survive. I think it’ll come, but they are still about selling the sticks and not being consciously aware of these lifestyle changes. “It’s tough enough to educate the trades, but even harder to educate the suppliers,” he says, “There is a great opportunity here.”

Silver Tsunami

McHugh is an example of a trend that’s reaching a tipping point if for no other reason than simple demographics. America is about to get hit by what some UD advocates call a “silver tsunami” of baby boomers, that tumultuous band born between 1946 and 1964. The first of the boomers turned 65 in 2011.

In less than two decades, every living member of that 77 million-strong cohort will be between the ages of 65 and 85 and account for 20% of the country’s total population, according to U.S. Census estimates. And, 90% of these boomers report they want to stay in their homes as they grow older.

Boomers may be determined to defy the limitations of age, but they’re certain to encounter the normal consequences of aging: reduced vision, a process that begins in the 40s; less strength; and a decline in fine-motor skills. These diminutions occur in the absence of any significant disability. At age 60, for instance, adults need three times the light they did at age 20 to see properly. On top of that, Census data reveal that more than 29% of Americans 65 and over suffer some form of physical disability.

Universal design can mitigate a lot of these challenges with the use of layered lighting to banish shadows; flat thresholds at all entrances to reduce tripping hazards; roll-in (curbless) showers equipped with adjustable showerheads, flip-down seats, and support bars; comfort-height toilets (higher than standard toilets); wide hallways and 3-foot wide doorways; multi-level counters; and pull-down shelves in kitchens.

But there’s more than just products involved here. Universal design also calls upon the builder to think about such items as extra wood behind the walls to brace support bars and benches. “I look at universal design as advanced building science,” McHugh says.

In Boone, N.C., where there are lots of second homes and wealthy retirees, you might think universal design would have some traction. Dwight Simmons sighed and gave a short laugh when he heard the question.

“Oh, I know about [universal design], but no builders are asking about it,” the founder of Mountain Lumber says. “Dealers are missing a golden opportunity.”

When Simmons built his own house in 2008, he built it to last employing design strategies that would make it possible for him and his wife to remain in their home for the rest of their lives. “We didn’t have a clue about universal design then,” he says, but as a green dealer, Simmons did know a thing or two about sustainability. “Our home is 50% better than code,” he says. “We did tighten it up.

“Our third bedroom we made self-contained with a kitchen and private entrance and a bathroom with a no-threshold shower and support bars,” he says. “This was our last hurrah and we wanted to get everything in place. I know it works.”

In 2011, Simmons earned the CAPS (Certified Aging in Place Specialist) designation offered by the NAHB (National Association of Home Builders) because he thought it might open up some opportunities for his business and give him a way to differentiate Mountain Lumber from other dealers.

“Based on our experience building a new home in 2008, we were able to see firsthand the benefits of incorporating some design changes that have positive long-term benefits,” he says.

Though he clearly realizes the opportunities that UD offers dealers, Simmons is frustrated by the lack of interest he sees from both builders and dealers in his area.

“Partnering [with builder customers] is the way to go for dealers,” he says, but he acknowledges the difficulties that lie ahead. “We’re all wearing six hats or more. I have found dealers to be very stubborn, you know. A lot of dealers are operating [based on] how they used to do things back in the ‘70s, and getting them to take on something new is hard.”