Sustainable Design Begins with Universal Design

By Drue Lawlor, FASID and chair of the ASID Aging in Place Council


“If it’s not universally designed, it’s not sustainable.”


Whether you heard Rosemarie Rossetti make this statement during her keynote speech at INTERIORS 08 in New Orleans or not, stop and think for a moment just what an impact this statement might have on a client’s home, on your parent’s home and even your own home.


How sustainable is a home that, because of its design, forces a person to move out of it when they begin to have trouble climbing the stairs up to the bedrooms and down to the basement laundry room?  How sustainable is a home for a stroke victim that forces them to rely on a friend to take them to the community clubhouse several times a week to use the shower because their home tub is too awkward to access?  Then there is the homeowner who suffers an unexpected accident and has to remain in the hospital because their home can’t be modified quickly enough for them to be released.  What about the patient who comes home to recuperate and does have a bedroom on the main level but it was added as an quick afterthought, has a high window overlooking the neighbor’s brick wall, receives very little sunlight and opens into a bathroom designed to use the toilet, shower and lavatory, all without having to move more than two feet! 


All of the examples above might have been designed beautifully, and possibly with the newest “green” materials, but if just one of many common accidents or health challenges occur, suddenly that beautifully designed home becomes an emotional and physical handicap in itself.  Why not design for the health of the home and the homeowner and consider the investment in the future of both?


When you think that in many instances the extra costs involved are minimal if they are higher at all, and actually when weighed against the costs of making changes later or of being forced out of one’s home, planning ahead is certainly cost effective and should be sold as such.  Changes in the structure can be much less costly when made at the initial time of construction rather than at a time of emergency.  In addition, when under emotional and physical stress because of an accident or major health challenge, eliminating the additional stress of trying to plan and design construction changes in a home so as to accommodate the patient is a added health benefit in itself.


A healthy, sustainable home is a home that is designed for all members of the family and that will serve as an inviting home to family and friends, no matter their health challenge.  Those health challenges might be one of the “silent” ones, such as allergies or diabetes, or the more visible problems caused by pulmonary disease or stroke, yet the truly sustainable home will “sustain”  and thereby support that homeowner and their friends and family, usually as long as they wish to remain in the home.  So one could say that a universal home is not only sustainable but also gives the homeowner a sense of independence¾no matter what physical challenges may occur.


If the homeowner is lucky and lives a long and healthy life, their universal home will prove to be sustainable, as it will not be an impediment to others because of their size, age or infirmity, and it will go on working for generations, no matter who might live there. 


Just think, the more homes that are universal, the more homes that will work smarter, work harder and will last longer as they will be designed to meet the needs of the homeowners for as long as they choose to stay.  What a sustainable idea!