Home Access
by Charles M. Schwab

I am an architect specializing in Universal Home Design for a lifetime of healthy living. My journey with Universal Design (UD) began when I was a caregiver for my grandfather some 26 years ago. Properly implementing the principles of UD into home design can help people of all ages and abilities live actively in their own homes as long as they are able. Grandpa use to say, "Charlie, there's no place like home. I want to stay here as long as possible."

Thinking Universal Design

According to AARP, 90 percent of baby boomers either want to remain in their current homes, or build a new home with UD features and complete home accessibility from the start. The difference between simple access and Universal Design is significant. When UD is properly implemented, it is intended to be usable by people of various ages and abilities. An accessible home may be designed for wheelchair use only.

Maximum usability allows people to adapt to changing life conditions while incorporating spatial design for mobility device use, clean air for those with asthma or allergies and proper lighting for both young and aging eyes. Good acoustical design can reduce stress, benefiting those with hearing impairments. Physical access is a component of UD but additional features are included to help make a home that is truly livable for all.

Universal Design is coming of age and makes sense as baby boomers are living longer and more active lives. A UD home's features will also ease caregiver tasks, making it possible for people to not only live longer at home but also to rehabilitate and heal at home as well.

Pros and Cons of Staying Home

Let's explore the pros and cons of staying in an existing home and remodeling for access or building a new UD home. Keep in mind that it may not be possible to find an existing home that embodies the desired UD features if a client wants to relocate.

Are there advantages to remodeling an existing home for access? Is the home near frequented shopping amenities? What about the community service and social clubs a client associates with? Consider proximity to a particular church or hospitals as well. Ask clients to think about how close they are currently to family and friends that are as important or even more so than the home itself. Do they like the neighborhood they live in? Are there young children and schools nearby? Are pets well suited to the current home? Where will they be housed during a remodel? Is the existing home paid for? Does the client own a lot of special family mementoes, including heirlooms and collections? These and more considerations come into play when considering a remodel or relocation, as well as available community resources.

It can cost as much as 75 to 100 percent more than the cost of installation to make home modifications for access in an existing home compared to new construction. However, nicely landscaped lots may be hard to find in new developments, and the benefits of a traditional neighborhood run deep, including safe and pleasant walkability.

If remodeling for access is the final answer, it is important to check with local zoning ordinances early in the process to verify if home expansion is allowed in the first place. This may be necessary for wheelchair access into and within the structure. Existing homes have front, rear and side yard limits that must be adhered to, and certain neighborhoods may have specific design covenants.

A strategy I have implemented is to design a UD addition attached to the existing home by removing an existing window and making a door or cased passage connecting the two. In this manner you can get the best of both worlds: a Universally Designed partial new home (the addition), while keeping the existing home mostly intact without getting into a full-access remodel. I am currently designing this type of addition for my parents, with a breezeway connecting the home. Home access will also be provided via this breezeway, as their house is a two-story Colonial with steps up to the front door.

A nurse who recently retired from working in a nursing home told me just last month, "A lack of an accessible bath is what sends people to nursing homes." It may be that all you really need is an accessible master suite.

New Home Advantages

The advantage of a new home is that it can be built with Univeral Design in mind, so that the entire home will be accessible using earth grading for access, as opposed to ramps or lifts, thus looking more natural and planned. All of the passage doors can be 3 feet wide and side clearances included for optimum ease of use. There are dozens of UD features, and the client can choose the location of their new home. Two advantages of building from scratch include the opportunity to move to a different neighborhood and the ability to make the new home more energy efficient.

A Wise Investment

The freedom to move and live independently within one's own home will be one of the wisest and most fulfilling investments a client will ever make. Consider the alternatives!

Editor's note: Visit www.universaldesignonline.com to view Schwab's Universal Design home plans and to learn more about universal design. HomeCare readers will receive a $5 discount when ordering Schwab's new book, Universal Designed Smart Homes for the 21st Century: 102 home plans you can order and build. Simply enter coupon code UDHOME at checkout.