If you are easily reading this then you are not one of the 25 million Americans that “have trouble” seeing, even if wearing glasses or contacts. This article is about those with disabilities—not just vision, but hearing, motor skills, mobility, and other disabilities. Accommodating disabilities with how we provide housing is a burgeoning trend in this country, and we can assist these individuals by improving how we design and build homes that incorporate universal design.
We might think green as energy efficiency, water efficiency, good indoor air quality, durability, locally sourced materials, reduced impact on the planet, reduced use of raw materials, or use of recycled or reused materials. One characteristic that often is not included is designing homes that can accommodate differently-abled individuals. If a tenant of a green building is durable and sustainable then the design needs to be durable and sustainable as well. We never “plan” on a disability but perhaps we should. The odds are that we will need—be it temporary or permanently—a space that can be functional for one with reduced abilities. Perhaps a smart design—a durable home design—plans ahead. It’s something I call future proofing our homes. Why build a durable home only to have to make major alternations? It doesn’t make sense.
For the most part, we are ignoring the problem and the problem continues to grow and will be epidemic in the years ahead. There is an urgent need to build new homes and retrofit existing homes to adequately accommodate those differently-abled. There are 10,000 people turning 65 every day . That’s 3,650,000 folks a year or about seven individuals every second. Of these, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, an astonishing 42% are disabled or 14 million Americans, and in 2005 the number grew to 18 million or one in five Americans.
Of these 54 million Americans with a disability 35 million are severely disabled and 7.8 million people over the age of 15 have difficulty reading ordinary newsprint; another 7.8 million people have difficulty hearing an ordinary conversation, and 2.5 million encounter difficulty in having their speech understood by others. More than 27 million have lower body limitations while 19 million have upper body limitations; and 16.1 million have cognitive, mental and emotional functioning disabilities.
Somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million adults in the United States reported they have some form of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, lupus, or fibromyalgia. And 20% of U.S. citizens have reported their doctor has diagnosed arthritis. 24 million have hearing impairments. That’s one in eleven.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been around since 1990 but has not included residences. It was established to accomplish this statute; in enacting the ADA, Congress intended to “provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.”
According to the JAN (Job Accommodation Network) webpage there are five key areas of the act: employment, public services, telecommunications, and a miscellaneous section including issues like retaliation, coercing or threatening those with disabilities. But the act is for public spaces and offices and the like. It does not include residential per se. However, given the rising numbers of those who would qualify under ADA, the question arises: “Why not apply the same principles to residential construction?”
The National Association of Home Builders offers a class and designation entitled Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS). The designation focuses on elderly homeowners who wish to remain in their homes despite some sort of disability. However the class can have broader implications for those builders that need—or want—to accommodate special needs. And what about homeowners whose aging parents can’t access their homes? The key idea is “visitability.” Can someone differently-abled come to the owner’s home and visit? Can they get to the home, and does the home accommodate these individuals? Can they use the restroom? Is the flooring easy to navigate? There is a need to incorporate more of these building techniques and best practices into new green and energy-efficient homes as well as a process for retrofitting homes.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) does in fact give points for including Universal Design features. Universal Design has been submitted as a proposed addition for the National Green Building Standard (NGBS) for 2012. This program is administered by the NAHB Research Center. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has a competition for ways to include universal design. They have workshops on the topic. In addition, the American Society of Interior Design embraces universal design, and there are several resources available to both interior design professionals as well as architects.
There are some wonderful examples of homes that incorporate green with universal design (See Fabcab for ideas and photos.) Well-designed homes can have broad market appeal. These homes do not need to look like a hospital room; in fact, well done universal design homes can be very appealing. A green house is usually a well built and durable home that reduces maintenance work, a real plus for those with disabilities. Improved indoor air quality will add to the general health of the occupants.
Some of these universal design best practices are already being done: master on the main level, lever door handles instead of knobs, pedestal sinks (so you can roll up to the sink) instead of a cabinet below, microwave drawers instead of above–the- stove units. Other easily incorporated, low-impact options include: contrast in colors in flooring at steps, no—or low- threshold doorways and showers, lowered light switches (ergonomically better for everyone). Wider hallways and doorways make homes seem more roomy.
And don’t forget about the outside: eliminating steps, including well- lit walks, and considering the home and community location and access to transit are all key. Light-displayed doorbells in addition to a chime can be of great assistance for those with hearing impairments. Ask any builder; planning ahead for an elevator significantly reduces the costs to add one at a later date. “Elevator ready” like “solar ready” can be a valuable option that builders can offer.
This takes a paradigm change for all; real estate agents, mortgage lenders and appraisers need to understand the importance of these features and see them as improving the collateral not as a deficit to the property. And builders need to see the benefit of opening up their markets by building homes that are accessible by all potential buyers.
When remodeling or constructing a green home including Universal Design features.
Here are some links for further information on this topic.
Article by Dave Porter MIRM, CGP, CAPS, CGA, NAR GREEN, SixSigma GreenBelt, GLS
Contact: email@example.com; 206 304 8228
Photos courtesy FabCab.com: All FabCab models are universally designed with wide doors, curbless showers, stepless entries, ergonomic cabinets, and flexible floor plans – features that are beneficial to everyone from toddlers to great grandparents. Shown here is the kitchen, which provides a place for wheelchair to slide under the counter.