By Jenn Danko
No longer targeted exclusively toward aging-in-place individuals, the practice of Universal Design (UD) is a multi-generational building concept that is reinventing the way many industry professionals approach new construction and home renovations.
Builder Harald Koehn can attest. Koehn, a member of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders' Association, and owner of Vancouver-based Harald Koehn Construction Ltd., focuses his efforts on simultaneously building several, high-end homes that incorporate UD concepts.
"While current health issues often bring Universal Design requirements to the forefront, many people recognize that if they are going to embark on a custom built home or renovation project, this is the time to think about future accessibility needs," Koehn says
So what adjustments are builders making to accommodate current and future needs of their clients when it comes to UD, and how can you incorporate them into your clients’ projects?
One of Koehn’s current renovations incorporates the cross-generational needs of a family with five children, the youngest of which is 10 and lives with complications from spina bifida.
"Their desire was to build a home that would incorporate their family’s needs today and into the future," Koehn explains. Not only does the couple want to enable their 10 year old to live more independently as he gets older, but also they want to age in place and build for their future accessibility needs.
"What has been most important to both the family and myself is that the home is accessible and safe but still retains a residential look and feel," Koehn adds.
To accommodate, he installed a ceiling track lift system in the youngest son’s bedroom that allows for mobility throughout the home, along with assistive bathroom fixtures and features, including a fully tiled floor gradually sloping to a drain. In terms of big picture advice for builders, Koehn says UD can be incorporated in overall layout and design. "This includes wider hallways, open spaces in the common living areas, an area in the kitchen outfitted with lower cupboard and counter and easily reached fridge unit."
Peter Simpson, president and CEO of the GVHBA, says such basic design elements, especially in kitchen and bathrooms, not only make homes more accessible but are also cost effective.
"Simple things like lever door handles, lower light switches, and higher power receptacles—these small adjustments can minimize the challenges many people face in everyday life," he says.
But what about those people who are not yet experiencing such challenges? How can you get that sector to start thinking about renovating or building a home to incorporate UD principals?
John Friswell, president and owner of CCI Renovations in North Vancouver and second vice president of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, says that as much as UD has been abuzz among industry professionals, clients are not necessarily jumping on board.
"We are usually the ones getting our clients to think about the possibility of growing old in their space and what they could do to improve it," he says.
Generally, Friswell tries to include at least one bathroom shower without a curb or install reinforcements in bathrooms walls so that, even if they don’t want a grab bar right now, they can easily install one in the future.
While some contractors are still unfamiliar with UD building concepts, Koehn says the rise of mixed-generational homes will make it an integral part of future building strategies.
"It is not uncommon to hear of families looking to accommodate two generations within one home," he says. "With a larger population of ‘senior-aged’ homeowners and an increased desire for greater accessibility for all ages, there is a greater awareness. And, these principles seem common sense for both the builder and the client."
Universal Design (UD) is based on seven principles that are integral to the success of any new construction or renovation project. John Friswell, president and owner of CCI Renovations in Vancouver, and chairman of the Canadian Renovator’s Council, and Harald Koehn, owner of Vancouver-based Harald Koehn Construction, Ltd., explain the principles of this growing design movement.
Equitable use requires a design to be useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. In the case of Koehn’s current home project, equitable use helps him and his team realize the timeless vision of the space. "Because this family intends to live here for many years to come, we chose a design and features and finishes that would service this family not only today but into the future," Koehn says.
Flexibility in use allows residents with a wide range of individual preferences and abilities to utilize the space. Friswell says flexibility is an increasing demand with multi-generational building. "More and more, we are building what we call flex spaces," Friswell says. "These is typically a space that could be a bedroom in a pinch but is usually used as a home office."
This principle requires that the use of the design is easily understood regardless of cognitive, motor, or language skills. "This is a basic principal of any good design," Friswell notes. "A space should be easy to use and look and function in an uncomplicated way."
This principle requires that the design transmits necessary information to the residents, regardless of sensory limitations. "Probably the best example of this principle used in our home project was the ‘electronic element,’" Koehn explains. "Remote control/digital access opens doors both literally and figuratively." For Friswell, this pillar is more about setting out a design with visual or textural clues to allow people with sensory issues to better understand how to interact with the space.
Tolerance for error minimizes hazards in the case of accidents or falls. "This is the provision of a space with a minimum of risks to the user," Friswell says. "This can mean not having transitions between different flooring types, and protecting against falls and drops." As part of his housing project, Koehn designed the home as "one-level living" because of the need for wheelchair access.
This principle allows for the space to be used without fatigue or repetitive actions. "Here, we are talking about designing a space that requires as little motion as possible to accomplish the majority of tasks in that particular space," Friswell says.
This design principle allows users of all body size, weight, and posture to maneuver around a space freely and fluidly. "This is the basis for accessibility," Friswell notes. "The design ensures that the space for the use of wheel chairs, for example, is reachable and comfortable to all people and gives a clear line of sight to the most important things in the area."