Remodelers are often at the leading edge of important trends in the residential construction industry. Existing houses are living laboratories for finding what works and what doesn’t, and homeowners are our test subjects. Now, as baby boom-generation homeowners reach retirement age, their bodies are telling them what’s wrong with their homes: steps they can no longer climb safely, bathrooms and kitchens that have become difficult to use, tripping hazards, poor lighting, and more. In the years ahead, much of our work as remodelers will consist of fixing barrier-filled existing homes.
This increasingly urgent need presents an enormous business opportunity. It also offers us the chance to improve our services across the board. Elders determined to age in place, multi-generation households, and clients with special needs are a significant and growing part of the market. Call it what you like—universal design (UD), accessible remodeling, lifespan design—an approach that considers the full range of human abilities and the full life cycle represents the future of remodeling. Developing and marketing your company’s expertise in this area presents challenges, but it’s well worth the effort. Here’s how to start.
The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University defines UD as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” Here’s what that means for remodelers:
- UD creates spaces that accommodate all of the life-cycle changes people experience. That includes more than just aging. A fit young person who breaks a leg skiing might find it impossible to use his or her own bathroom. Think of UD as “grand design”—planning a home that is friendly and convenient for everyone, from grandchildren to grandparents.
- UD incorporates green building principles, including energy efficiency, low-maintenance materials, and attention to air quality. The benefits are improved health, greater convenience, and predictable operating expenses, all of which are important to elders but attractive also to any homeowner.
- UD helps eliminate the need for specialized, institutional-looking features that can make visitors feel awkward and carry a social stigma for their owners.
- UD means filling a home with functional, comfortable ideas that look great and are appealing to homeowners and guests alike.
- Done right, UD is invisible. Thoughtful features like lower light switches and higher outlets—a boon to children and people who use wheelchairs—are virtually unnoticeable. For remodelers just getting their feet wet in this market, the National Association of Home Builder’s (NAHB) Certified Aging in Place Specialist program and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry’s (NARI) Universal Design Certified Professional program provide a thorough grounding in the principles and practices involved. But even those who have been working this way for years can benefit from additional education.
Know Your Market
As they have with so many cultural shifts, baby boomers are leading the charge toward universal design. They’ve watched their parents struggle with aging in homes ill-suited to the changes they went through. Now, as they face the effects of aging themselves, many are taking a more proactive approach, remodeling their homes to prepare for the hurdles to come. Most want to age in the homes they know and love, but most traditional homes were not designed for this, with second-floor master bedrooms, step-up entryways and porches, and those awful 24-inch-wide doorways into bathrooms, closets, and showers. These are problems remodelers are uniquely equipped to solve.
Baby boomers are also the wealthiest generation in American history, many having inherited the wealth of frugal, hardworking parents who experienced the Great Depression and World War II. They own a huge proportion of the country’s housing stock, often with paid-off mortgages. They are looking for comfort, convenience, and safety. And, like every generation of grandparents before them, they are thinking about their grandchildren, so investing in upgrades that make their homes work better for both young and old holds special appeal.
Establish Your Credibility
Show clients that you understand their needs by introducing them to new products and technologies that will make their lives easier:
- Automatic door bottoms. These devices fasten to the bottom of an entry door, eliminating the need for a threshold while still providing a weather-tight seal.
- Lever-type door hardware. Door levers are easier to operate than conventional doorknobs and can look more stylish too. Some have integrated LED lighting to aid nighttime navigation.
- Bathroom ventilation fans and toilet seats with built-in lighting. These innovative products also help those with aging eyes or low vision make their way at night without turning on a bright overhead light.
- “Invisible” grab bars. Doubling as a soap dish, shower shelf, towel rack, or toilet paper holder, these bathroom fittings provide a secure hand-hold to steady oneself in the shower or to prevent a fall.
But designing for this market is more than just a shopping trip. The most valuable things you have to offer clients are insightful solutions that reflect common sense and experience:
- Suggest installing shower valves at the opposite end from the shower head, so the cold water won’t hit your clients in the back of the head.
- Place bath and kitchen sink faucets at the sides of sinks instead of behind them, so that children and people using wheelchairs can reach them more easily.
- Show clients how easy it is to add a heated towel warmer, a toe-kick heater, or in-floor radiant heating to a chilly bathroom.
The best way to convey the many great UD options available is with great photography—and lots of it. Many clients are asking for walk-in showers, home elevators, attractive grab bars, and LED lighting, but even those who aren’t aware of these features and their benefits will be convinced when they see them. Photos of projects that incorporate UD features in a seamless and attractive way also dispel the myth that accessibility must have an institutional look.
Good photos of your projects have always been a great sales tool, and you amplify their power and reach when you post them to online services like Houzz, Pinterest, and Porch. When you do, make sure to add “Universal Design,” “Accessible,” and other related key words to your captions and descriptions. I have gotten great jobs through Houzz precisely because my pictures popped up when clients entered “UD” in the search box.
And you’re not limited to presenting your own projects. You can clip relevant online photos from Houzz, Pinterest, or Porch to show clients using a photo-sharing website such as Jing or PixClip. However, never imply that a photo represents your work unless it actually does, and never republish a photo online or in print without its owner’s permission, or you could run afoul of copyright laws.
Put the Design in Universal Design
Don’t preach to clients about why UD is good for them, but do let them know that you use these principles in your construction and design. Note on your website and in your print materials any relevant certifications you’ve earned. More important, tell clients why UD represents a better way to build.
Emphasize convenience. Wider hallways make it easier to carry luggage to the bedroom; a zero-step entry makes it easy for the twins’ Mom to push a stroller from the car to the foyer, and it makes the way easier for Grandpa and his walker, too. Stress practicality, but not at the expense of excitement. While pointing out that a kitchen skylight is a boon for aging eyes, don’t forget to tell your client that all of that daylight will also make the colors in the new granite counter really pop. And because every client appreciates value, explain that these features make any home more marketable. After all, UD represents smart, sophisticated design.
After learning more about the advantages of UD, clients may well ask why all homes aren’t built this way. To be sure, new homes still have a long way to go toward full accessibility. But that just means remodelers will be fixing them for many years to come. All the more reason to start today. Make UD your standard practice, building these ideas into every scope of work you create. Life is full of surprises. Be the remodeler who creates homes that work for all people, no matter what life throws at them.