We know that there are many universal design and accessibility features that we can use when we modify people’s homes for aging in place solutions. We do this so that the homes after we leave can accommodate the widest range of physical abilities (or disabilities) and normal aging concerns. We may renovate a home to deal specifically with the needs of our client that don’t apply well beyond that client and have little relevance to the general marketplace. Otherwise, we look for opportunities to appeal to the greatest number of people and include universal design features in our design solutions.
What is interesting is that many home builders, even the largest production builders, are including many universal design and accessible features in their new homes as well – as many as ten of them. Some are including a few more. It’s unclear whether they are doing this because these features are smart choices that apply to a huge cross-section of the marketplace or just because of general market acceptance. Either way, the consumer is the beneficiary, and we can look beyond these features to other parts of the home we can address, or we can work with older homes.
It could be that such universal design and accessible features are being included because market research (focus groups, exit surveys, and interviews) and consumer response (during and after sales presentations) have commented on what they want and expect in a new construction home. These are included features – not extras – that are part of every home in all price points.
Here are the ten features that seem to be extremely common in new construction. Not every builder includes them, but they are widely available. In no particular order, the following features are seen, beginning with (1) lever door handles. These are quite common on interior doors and less so on exterior doors. Many exterior doors still have the vertical loop handle with the thumb release above it. This type of door handle is not universal because it offer takes two hands to use it, and many people do not have a sufficient span (reach with their thumb while holding the handle with the rest of their hand) or enough strength in their thumb to depress the activator. Still, lever door handles are a great universal design feature because they can be operated so many different ways from engaging and grasping the handle to depressing it with a fist, edge of the hand, elbow, or even something being held.
Then, (2) rocker light switches (sometimes referred to as “Decora” switches because this is the manufacturer) are generally used. It is rare to see the older-style toggle switches. Again, the rocker switches require little physical effort and can be operated many different ways – hallmarks of universal design.
Particularly in the kitchen are (3) single-lever faucets. Some are even touchless faucets, but the single-lever makes sense for many reasons in the kitchen. There is less to do to turn the water on and off and less concern about contaminating the faucet handle with messy hands. They are sleek and stylish also.
The next two items are related and both are electrical in nature: (4) electrical outlets or receptacles mounted no lower than 15″ above the floor and (5) wall switches and controls mounted no higher than 48″ (four feet) above the floor. The outlet height at 15″ has been common for years, and this coincides with various federal guidelines (ADAAG and ICC-ANSI A117.1-2009, for example). The four-foot maximum height also aligns with those same guidelines but has been done this way for decades. The lower sheet of drywall is mounted horizontally and notched at the top of it around the switchbox so the height is never more than four feet from the floor. The (6) digital thermostat is mounted in a similar location and is universal because of its ease of use in setting and reading it.
A recent addition to the universal design lineup is the (7) artificial intelligence/video monitoring/home automation provided by such devices as Ring and Nest and operated by bluetooth or wifi and connected to the outside world through Amazon’s Echo (“Alexa”) or Google’s Home.
Rounding out the ten common features are (8) flooring which is available in a variety of hard surface, low-maintenance styles (hardwood, laminate, engineered wood, tile, cork, tile, and similar products), (9) front-loading washing machine although some builders are returning to top-loaders even through the front-loaders are easier for anyone to access them and use because they don’t have to be tall enough to reach down into the machine to retrieve their clothes, and (10) barn doors that are easy to operate and can cover wider openings than traditional hinged doors without interfering with adjacent floor space since they don’t open into a room or area.
With builders showcasing these features in the new homes, it makes it easier for us to install them as well in a renovation because people are common to see in the marketplace and do not stand out as being anything special or different – another objective of universal design.