Benefits of Universal Design Model Homes

by Louis Tenanbaum, CAPS, Independent Living Specialist and member of the ASID Aging-in-Place Council

If a picture speaks a thousand words, a walk through is worth a million pictures. Universal Design model home projects offer that walk-through experience. They provide shared context so the Universal Design discussion can be rooted in a “bricks and mortar” experience.

These projects successfully engage and generate discussion among consumers, community leaders and the building community. The conversation ranges from the benefits of Universal Design to corollary issues such as inclusion and visitability, aging in place, and livable communities. It is easy and helpful for a model to become a rallying point for important issues not otherwise popularly discussed. Community groups are encouraged to take tours or have meetings in the home, making it a fun and popular place and helping whole groups to recognize the common ground of Universal Design to so many issues and causes.

Good press increases visitors multiplying the impact. Sometimes we advocates forget that the media is looking for stories as much as we are looking for exposure. A PR professional is an asset to any model home coalition. Model homes, the organizations, the groups who visit, the reactions are all great angles for the press. Demographic and health issues attract stories, too. Even a follow-up story with the occupants, especially if they don’t have specific needs but just enjoy the gracious spaces and easy living inherent in Universal Design, become a story two years after the model has closed, thus extending the value of the project. True human tales of needs met add zing to the stories, but care should be taken to avoid concentrating on miracle solutions to tragedies of illness or injury so the Universal Design message is not muted.

For you, the designer, the benefits of getting involved in a model home project include:

  • exposing the ideas and reality to community and individuals
  • new networks and contacts
  • the experience and personal fulfillment of participants
  • the chance to act and be perceived as a community leader.

A good experience can really turn the tide. The project and discussion can lead to business opportunities. Builders may get on board targeting a niche (or, Universally, NOT a niche). Designers may find new clients. Agencies serving citizens in their homes may highlight the synergy of good design and in-home services. Networking occurs while the model is open. People meet there and learn of shared interests.

A few strategies have emerged for developing Universal Design model homes. All have similar elements: conceiving the idea, design, getting it built and using it to educate. Sometimes a model home is accomplished by a small group, including a builder. The project may prepare for and participate in a Parade of Homes put on by a local building association. This strategy piggybacks on the publicity of the whole parade. In other cases existing or purposefully formed community action groups take on the project. These groups often have better luck finding sponsors to help finance the project. The group may partner with a building company. The community group aspect helps legitimize the project when publicity is sought. Some homeowners make or open their personal homes as models.

Most model homes are open for a prescribed period or by appointment and then become the well designed private residences we should all have. Most model homes are put to good use by those lucky enough to occupy the house. Some criticize model projects because the result of so much effort is available to visitors for a limited time. They prefer creating displays or vignettes seen by more folks over a longer period. Model advocates counter that displays never quite seem real enough to some visitors, requiring too much imagination to make their point.

Leon Harper, the grand marshal of Universal Design advocacy has at least three and maybe five or six memorable Universal Design model homes to his credit. The IDEA center at the University of Buffalo School of Architecture has experience with Universal Design Model Homes and offers assistance to others who need advice through its federal grants. Rebecca Stahr, ASID, a member of the ASID Aging in Place Council, spearheaded the recent Universal Design Alliance model home in Atlanta. Links to these projects and others are included below.

If you are wondering how to get involved in your community and jumpstart your own involvement and exposure as a Universal Design advocate and designer, consider a Universal Design Model Home Project.

Further reading and exploration:

Universal Design Newsletter
Livable Lifetime Show House
IDEA Center Model Home
Universal Design Living Laboratory
Generations: A Life-Span Design Home
Accessible Housing Services Universal Design Model Home

Louis Tenenbaum is an independent living specialist.  To find out more about his work, visit or