Some new home builders are beginning to include universal design features in their production homes. How many of those features are intentional included as universal design treatment and how many just happen because of market appeal is unknown. Nevertheless, the consumer is the beneficiary of these design choices.
The idea of universal design in new construction is that a home can appeal to anyone and not just a narrowly-defined target or market segment, such as singles, young families, seniors, empty nesters, for example. It means that people using mobility aids can access a home the same as people not requiring them. It means that age, physical size, height, or physical ability are irrelevant to how well someone can use and live in a home.
Universal design that is immediately noticeable to the public when they arrive at a model home to inspect it for consideration as a possible purchase for their new residence begins before the consumer even arrives at the actual entry door. Some builders include this in their designs, but many have retained older building styles.
The entrance that is a universal design treatment has several distinguishing features. First, the entry walk from the driveway to the front stoop or porch is wide (at least four feet and preferably wider), a continuous, smooth, hard surface such as poured concrete without seams, and one without any steps. If it changes elevation over the course of its run, it has a gentle slope (rise) from the beginning of it to the end. At the end of it, there is a seamless transition from the walkway to the porch. patio, or stoop.
Such a design is immediately recognizable as something different from what other builders in the marketplace are offering. Even plans that don’t have steps to negotiate to climb from the entry walk to the front door typically have one or two small steps plus a four-inch or more step into the home at the doorway itself.
Even before leaving the driveway to begin the approach to the front door, a universal design driveway is wider than a typical two- or three-car driveway to allow a sufficiently wide hard surface paved area where people, animals, and supplies can be loaded and unloaded from any cars or trucks – even when other vehicles are parked in the driveway.
At the front door, a universal design concept that also is found in ADA guidelines is having a working area, approach zone, or access space of up to two-feet to the side of the door to await the door being opened before going inside. Many new homes are built without this provision and have a very narrow access to the front door that is further constrained by a wall or columns. The purpose of the access area is to allow anyone (including a wheelchair user) space to approach the entry door and not be in front of it when it is opened (either toward the person waiting or inside the dwelling).
A covered entry porch that is sufficiently wide to prevent falling or blowing rain or snow from contacting a person awaiting entry. Good lighting is important also, regardless of time of day but especially on cloudy days or at night.
At the front door itself, a lever door handle and an electronic lock of some type (keypad or bluetooth) are great universal design features because they eliminate the manual dexterity and strength typically required to open the latch-style door handle as well as the insertion of a key into the lock. The keyless feature means that anyone who has the code can unlock the door (the occupants of the home, their family that does not live with them, trusted immediate neighbors, and service personnel) can unlock the door and gain entry as needed. No more hiding a key somewhere near the entrance for people who need to let themselves into the dwelling.
A smooth transition into the home completes the universal design entry process by eliminating any step or potential obstacle that someone might encounter.
From the street, the person considering this new home acquisition would see a smooth sidewalk extending to the front porch or stoop with no steps even though it might rise several feet. They would see a comfortably covered porch where they can await entry into the home, They would see a smooth, uninterrupted path to and through the entry door without any major impediments to access (just the low threshold at the door, and these are continuing to get smaller in height).
Inside the home, features such as rocker light switches, LED lighting, hard surface flooring without a height difference between flooring surfaces, a digital thermostat, and a single-lever kitchen faucet are some of the many other common universal design treatments some builders are now including in their homes.
See “Universal Design For Builders” by Steve Hoffacker for dozens of other suggestions on what builders can include in their homes to facilitate access and use by as many people as possible.