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Making living spaces comfortable and safe

Though you might not know what universal design is, you see it almost everywhere you go.

It’s the metal bars on a bathroom wall. The low sink with leg room underneath. The elevator in a two-story building. The ramp leading up to an exterior entrance. 

“Universal design is making the environment safe and comfortable for all people,” says Thomas Gears, SWBR Architects principal. “People come in all shapes and sizes and cognitive abilities.”

Universal design is regulated by several codes, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the building code of New York, which Gears estimates is updated about every six years.

Though those codes create requirements for universal design, architects practice good design principles that exceed minimum necessities. Gears is in charge of elder care projects at his firm. He’s worked on several assisted living and long-term care homes for elderly residents.

Some modifications are obvious: In kitchens, lower counters and cabinets give residents easier access. In bathrooms, showers with no step to enter are important for those in a wheelchair or with a walker. Grab bars are a necessity as well. 

But universal design goes beyond the basics. Lighting is a big issue, especially for the elderly and other folks with impaired vision. Homes for seniors require plenty of natural light. They also often use light-colored furnishings to help reflect light.

Universal design principles extend as well to encourage socialization among residents. 

“We’re encouraging them to use the gathering spaces,” Gears says. “The (rooms) get smaller and the gathering spaces become more important. … From an architectural perspective, our design goal is to make our projects feel like home.”

Susan Bussey is the senior vice president of senior housing at Jewish Senior Life. She says some common rooms feature movie projectors or pianos to promote socialization and prevent isolation. 

“Our family members like seeing the common spaces,” Bussey says. “They like spaces for their parents to exercise and walk outside.”

Jewish Senior Life’s memory care assisted living unit, the Lodge at Wolk Manor, features many design principles to help day-to-day life. Wayfinding, a circular design to the building, means no dead-end hallways where residents could get lost or confused. The building also has Dutch doors that open at the top, so residents can see what’s going on outside their rooms without venturing out alone. Family-style dining promotes a homey feel as well.

“It looks more like a house or home, so it’s very comforting for everyone,” Bussey says.

Jim Albright of Albright Remodeling works to make private homes safe and usable for older residents. Most of the customer calls he receives are from adult children looking out for their elderly parents.

“It is very unusual for older folks to call. All they have left is their pride, and they don’t want to admit that they’re not as good as they used to be,” Albright says.

He also retrofits homes for generation sharing, adding extensions to adult children’s homes so their parents can live with them. The first order of business: Keep everything on one level. To that Albright adds grab bars that double as towel racks, extra lighting, wider doorways and lower counters. He makes sure door handles are paddles that are pushed, not knobs that need twisting.

The spaces are flexible for multiple uses, Albright says. “We always design these things with dual purposes so that once mom and dad move on, this isn’t just an attachment hanging off the back of the house.”

To make the most of any remodel project, Albright advocates for foresight. On consultations, he asks that all of the adult children be present. He’s been known to invite a physical therapist as a dispassionate third party. Once he starts the project, Albright installs equipment his clients may need in five years, not just what they need at the moment.

“Nobody wants to look into the future,” he says. “This is a generalization, but nobody wants to admit they’re failing.” 

Along with the needs of residents, the future of universal design will evolve as technology improves—think remote control shades, blinds and lighting, Gears says. As it does, routine tasks will become easier. After all, pressing a button is much easier and safer than having to stand and lower a curtain. 

Greg Pokriki is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

10/14/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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