Designing for a Diverse Population

By Elaine Martin Petrowski

Linking your business's profitability to the changing needs of a diverse population benefits everyone.

In the process of following building codes and guidelines mandated by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), some interior design consultants have experienced an epiphany. They've discovered that many of the design solutions aimed at making spaces accessible to individuals with handicaps have, in fact, improved access for all users.

Consider the language. Design that started out being called "handicapped-accessible" was later dubbed "barrier-free." The same concepts were later referred to as "aging in place," "life-span design" or "ageless design." Recently, however, "universal design" has been adopted, not just as the most politically correct term, but also as the most accurate in its far-reaching implications.

Take Shelley Siegel, ASID, for example. She founded Accessible Interiors Network, Inc., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1990, after she broke her leg while teaching a "barrier-free" design course at a private college. "I began to specialize exclusively in designs for 'special-needs' clients, but the amenities I was using and the products that were being developed could simply be classified as good design. When incorporated properly into a project, they made life easier and safer for all users," adds Siegel, who now designs senior living residences and health-care interiors.

"No matter what you call it, it's smart design because it provides ease of use, safety and comfort for all," adds Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, CBD, a Brookfield, Conn., kitchen and bath designer, educator and author of several books on universal design.

What's the Market?

Just as they have affected every aspect of daily life for the last half century, the needs of the estimated 79 million baby boomers can be expected to make universal design more important in the coming decades, as they enter their golden years. And that holds true not only for designers but for the manufacturers of the products they specify as well. "We have been working with the universal design community since 1994," says Brian F. Sherry, marketing manager, remodeling, design and industry relations at General Electric Appliances, Louisville, Ky. "Our first concern is to show designers, architects and consumers how they can incorporate our appliances into a kitchen with universal design concepts and how to select the models that accomplish this."

General Electric Appliances has become increasingly sensitive to universal design principles in terms of new product design, according to Sherry. "We concentrate on designing appealing products for as wide a range of users as possible, rather than create specialized products," he adds. "Throughout our product lines, control graphics and user directions have been made larger and clearer. Clothes washers and dryers incorporate a color-matching system to make it easier [for all users] to select the appropriate cycles. Accessories, such as roll-out shelves, have been added to selected refrigerators to make them more accessible; and microwaves now have menu-driven controls."

Business Builder

Universal design is a powerful marketing tool. And savvy interior design consultants will use it not only to improve spaces, but also to build business in any number of ways. Think universally. "Stop regarding universal design as a specialty practiced only by a few. Look at your own projects and the products you are currently using and see how they can benefit users of all ages and functional abilities," Siegel suggests. Don't reinvent the wheel, she cautions, simply include the principles of universal design into what you have been doing. "We don't age out of our environment. So we all must start to design houses and businesses with the idea of aging in place in mind," agrees Wm L. Wilkoff, FASID, District Design in Washington, D.C., who has been involved with the development of universal design concepts since 1972, when he sat on the U.S. President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, where the concept of barrier-free design originated.

Take Action Now

To turn your knowledge of universal design into an asset, consider these suggestions from those who have been there: 

  • Identify and advertise your firm as a vital part of the universal design trend, starting with your firm name (such as Siegel's Accessible Interiors Network). Stress your knowledge of accessibility requirements in your name, logo and in any advertising. And set up a Web site that showcases your best universal design work.
  • Establish yourself as an expert, Wilkoff suggests. "As a design professional thoroughly familiar with codes and requirements, you can offer your client the promise that his property is in compliance with ADA. Make clients aware that if they hire you to work on a project, they don't need to buy the separate services of an ADA consultant," he says.
  • Put your money where your mouth is. Make your own work site accessible to both employees and clients of varied abilities. Provide ramps, wide doorways, easy-to-operate hardware, doorbells within easy reach of all, wide aisles, varied-height work surfaces, and good task and ambient lighting, suggests Wilkoff.
  • Spread the word. Teach, lecture, write and speak about the concepts of universal design for trade, consumer and professional groups. Possibilities include occupational therapists, social workers, church groups, real estate agents and senior citizens. "Not only does it lend credibility, but people now seek us out instead of the other way around," says Brenda Frost, ASID, Brenda Frost Design Associates Inc., Deerfield Beach, Fla.
  • Be selective about your audience. Weigh the potential for a speaking engagement, not just to educate your audience, but to network for your own contacts, adds Peterson, who was approached by the National Kitchen and Bath Association to create and teach a one-day course for other pros on universal design. That in turn led to a consulting position with a major manufacturer wanting advice on how its products could be used in universal designs and to a contract with a major builder to include universal design concepts in the kitchens of thousands of his new homes.
  • Be a joiner, says Frost, who specializes in hospitals and health- care facilities, physicians' offices, nurseries and daycare centers. She belongs to such organizations as the South Florida Hospital and Health Care Association. "Put yourself in front of the group that will hire you. Attend meetings and functions. That's where you'll find the facility managers who do the hiring. The more your name is bandied about the better."
  • Volunteer, advises Peterson: "I had more time than money when I started, so I volunteered for activities related to my interest and joined the mayor's office for advocacy of ADA requirements. I got to know some good people who recommended me, which in turn led to more projects."
  • Affiliate with your local ASID chapter, and join trade and professional organizations related to your niche of the market, whether it's homes, hospitals, offices or retail shops. For example, if you design offices, join the Chamber of Commerce or Rotary Club. And be sure to list yourself in business-to-business directories.
  • Think universal at every opportunity and incorporate accessible design as a marketing tool to ride the demographic trend of aging populations while making residential, retail, heath-care facility and other spaces usable by people of all ages and levels of physical competence.

Elaine Martin Petrowski, author of Dream Kitchen Planning (Putnam, 1996), is a freelance writer who specializes in interior design, remodeling, building and related topics.