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Universal Themes
Home design focuses on adaptability and ease of use

Photos by Doug Edmunds

 July 2014

Even though it seems as if people started talking about universal design only recently, the concept of adaptability was developed in 1997. Today, itís part of nearly every design discussion as awareness of its importance has increased.

"Universal design embraces flexibility, which allows families to grow with their home for a much longer time. It allows homes to adapt to familyís changing needs versus forcing them to move," says Nathan Wachtl, senior design consultant at S.J. Janis Co.

Three certified universal design experts ó Wachtl, Pekel Construction and Remodelingís David Pekel and Chris Egner of Four Seasons Sunrooms ó say universal design is commonly confused with the concept of aging in place. "Thatís one of the biggest misconceptions about universal design ó that itís a politically correct term for aging in place ó but itís not. Aging in place is generally in response to a situation, whereas universal design should be anticipated."

Touchless faucets, wider hallways and motion sensor lighting are just some examples of universal design in the home.

"Universal design allows a space to adapt to a familyís changing needs versus being forced to move," say Nathan Wachtl of S.J. Janis Co. The firm renovated the kitchen (opposite), and received a gold award from Milwaukee/NARI for its remodel of the bathroom (above), which features a barrier-free shower.

Wachtl recently finished a project in which the owners asked for a design that was universal and full of "serenity" for their 26-year-old starter home. "From a closet and second entrance we made a true master bath with improved flow," Wachtl says. "We installed a zero threshold walk-in shower with bench seat and steamer unit, and designed a curved tile projection for moisture protection and so that cold water doesnít drop on the clientís back."

Egner encourages people to incorporate universal design into any remodeling project or new construction. "Homes with universal design are usable to a larger group of people and allow them to stay in the home for a longer time," he says. "This adds value to the home." Itís also important to be aesthetically pleasing, not institutional looking, he says.

The experts say universal design is part of the evolution of the home industry. "A long time ago we used to put 28-inch doorways in houses," Egner says. "We donít do that anymore because thatís too small. This is the same. Universal design is one more way things are evolving to bring more value to what weíre doing."

Wachtel agrees: "For example, look at how kitchen use has changed over time. The kitchen is not just for cooking anymore ó children do their homework and are helping out with cooking; the husband is prepping the food."

But universal design is not just something to consider when remodeling. "Adapting is inherently more expensive than building from scratch," Pekel says. "You can program new spaces to employ universal design principles, which project the current situation but work in the long term, as well.

"To think of a home is to think of a reason for universal design," he says.

"I have a client right now whose spouse is dying. The hospice advisers said the best thing is for the spouse to come home. We are remodeling the house that this couple has owned all their lives so that a visiting caregiver can come to them," Pekel says. "It is so much more desirable for those who want to stay at home that they can. Theyíre happier because itís familiar to them, and they have memories there that canít be replaced.

"To my way of thinking, you should be able to live in your house as long as you want." M



This story ran in the July 2014 issue of: