Thursday, April 29, 2010

Universal design requests becoming part of home buying

From the Washington Examiner:

Six years ago, Randy Walther, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Elite in Fredericksburg, knew nothing about universal design. Then his adult son suffered a spinal cord injury, confining him to a wheelchair.

During the process of remodeling his home to accommodate his son's needs, Walther became engrossed in universal design, the concept of creating products, buildings and environments that meet the needs of everyone, not just the disabled or elderly.

Today Walther offers universal design consultation as a service in his real estate business.

"When it's staring you in the face, you make it work," Walther said. "Once you learn more, you realize some of the things put in place for a person with disabilities can be useful to anybody."

John Salmen, president of the Takoma Park-based Universal Designers & Consultants Inc., has studied universal design for 30 years. He has worked with AARP and other agencies on the concept of "aging in place," or making modifications to a home today for possible lifestyle changes later.

"People want to stay in their homes longer," Salmen explained.

Although aging baby boomers have fueled discussion about universal design for years, Salmen said that only recently has it gained traction with builders and product makers who now promote these features as amenities instead of restrictions.

Winchester Homes built a universal design home in the Clarksburg Village community in Montgomery County. The exterior of the home, which sold last August, looks like any other in the neighborhood.

Cynthia Herberg, director of marketing for Winchester Homes, said the company offers a Design for the Ages package, which anticipates the needs of multigenerational households.

The kitchen in the Clarksburg home features an island with 5-foot clearance for wheelchairs or strollers. Countertops vary in height, and controls are mounted on the front of appliances.

Winchester also offers buyers a universal design checklist that includes options like curbless showers, toilets centered 18 inches from the side of any wall, lever handle water fixtures, open pantries with easy access and obstacle-free wide walkways.

"If you look at the list of features, such as first-floor master bedrooms, you realize many people can benefit from those," Herberg said.

One example in the Walther household is the lift he installed for his son. It's proven quite useful in transporting large amounts of groceries.

The key, Salmen said, is realizing that universal design works for everybody.

"It can be low-cost too. It depends on a person's needs," he said. "Some people may have to retrofit. Others may need only simple solutions, like changing all knobs to levers or buying different appliances."