Word To The Wise: Universal Design or Universal Design, That is the Question

universal-design-150By E. Roberts Musser –

On July 19, 2010, the Senior Citizens Commission, Social Services Commission and its ADA Subcommittee met jointly to explore the possibility of transforming the city’s existing Accessibility and Visitability Policy into an ordinance with more teeth. Currently, the city’s Accessibility and Visitability Policy requires builder’s to merely offer a list of accessibility/visitability features for a homeowner to select from, and nothing more.

To begin the discussion, let’s define some terms:

  • Visitability
    – housing unit offers special accessibility features for the disabled guest.
  • Accessibility
    – entire housing unit can be utilized by disabled homeowner with focus on mobility issues.
  • Universal Design
    – entire housing unit designed for use by everyone, regardless of age/disability/situation.

The major structural features for a first floor accessible home are as follows:

  • Exterior accessible route to a zero threshold entrance (accessible entrance to home).
  • At least one accessible interior route through the hallways to the primary entry level bathroom, common use room, kitchen, with pathway through each (wide enough doorways and hallways, with accessible bathroom, kitchen, common use room).
  • Handrail/grab bar reinforcement (behind the walls).
  • Powder room/full bathroom on primary entry level.
  • One bedroom (or family room if bed can be accommodated) on accessible route of travel.

The idea behind visitable homes is to have a first floor that is mostly accessible to disabled guests with mobility problems – so they can at least enter the home, go to the bathroom and make their way to a common area. A Universally Designed home ensures that anyone can use the dwelling throughout, including someone who has mobility issues. And it allows a homeowner to “age in place”, so that as he/she grows old and infirm, remaining in the home is actually an option. The alternative, which to many is very unpleasant, would be the necessity of having to move to an appropriate senior facility.

Items like handrail/grab bar reinforcement behind the walls, so railings in hallways and grab bars in bathrooms can be installed at a future time, seem simple enough requirements that shouldn‘t raise a controversy. But the other requirements can cause problems of additional expense and impracticality depending on the topography or unit density of the project.

I remember having a discussion with Bill Ritter, a promoter of the recently proposed Measure P Wildhorse Development, a relatively small and tightly packed housing scheme. As he explained it, the builder of this financial venture would have a very difficult time putting in a first floor bedroom, because the square footage of the units was not very large. It was barely enough to fit in a living room, bathroom and kitchen area. Larger hallways required for accessibility would cut out even more space in the already tiny rooms.

On the other hand, proponents of a Universal Design ordinance argue that the zero threshold entrance should be the main entrance, otherwise disabled persons are seen as second class citizens. Advocates of Universal Design insist that nothing less than all the basic requirements of zero threshold front entrance, wider doors and hallways throughout, a first floor bedroom and full bath are absolutes. The question is how does the city bring together the two sides, and craft an ordinance or policy that will best serve the city and mollify both factions.

One idea that has been suggested is a tiered approach. Tier 1 features would be required as absolutely necessary, whereas those features grouped into Tier 2 could be incentivized or made as options. For instance, handrail/grab bar reinforcement behind the walls could be a Tier 1 feature, as would at least one zero threshold entry and a first floor powder room. A first floor bedroom, full bath, or zero threshold main entrance could be Tier 2 features that would be highly encouraged, but not considered mandatory.

Incentives could be developed whereby the city would “certify” a home as Universally Designed, and showcase such homes to visitors of our fair city. Or perhaps the city could develop a point system, by which a house must achieve a certain number of Universal Design points to be certified for approval. Certain simple items that are not costly or problematic would still be made mandatory regardless of any certification system.

Another wrinkle with respect to the issue of enacting a Universal Design Ordinance is CA law. It seems local governments can pass ordinances stricter than state law, but not less stringent. However, local ordinances cannot run counter to the current CA building code. So essentially what that means is that only those projects subject to City Council approval would be subject to any local Universal Design ordinance. The good news is this would engender most housing projects in Davis.

Yet an additional conundrum is housing projects that are either very dense, consist of fewer than 5 homes, or are on a building site that has unusual topographical problems. Would it be wise to have some sort of waiver system for a developer, that takes into account such difficulties? Obviously there are competing interests at times in regard to implementing a Universal Design ordinance. But not enough that both developers and those who care about accessibility cannot come together and work out a viable solution for all concerned.

Lesson to be learned: Universal Design is an idea whose time has come. The question is not whether to enact a Universal Design ordinance or policy, but to what extent to embrace a Universal Design ordinance. A hybrid policy/ordinance tiered approach might be a good compromise. Elaine Roberts Musser is an attorney who concentrates her efforts on elder law and aging issues, especially in regard to consumer affairs. If you have a comment or particular question or topic you would like to see addressed in this column, please make your observations at the end of this article in the comment section.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Related posts

5 Comments

  1. E Roberts Musser

    The Senior Citizens Commission was to have a joint meeting with the Social Services Commission in October to revisit the issue of a Universal Design Ordinance. Unfortunately, because of the pending call to eliminate the Senior Citizens Commission by merging it with the Social Services and Human Relations Commission, such a meeting between commissions may never take place.

  2. rusty49

    ERM, what’s the approx. cost to each new dwelling to institute Universal design?
    Under this new proposed ordinance if one is having a custom house built in Davis would they too have to abide?

  3. E Roberts Musser

    rusty49: “ERM, what’s the approx. cost to each new dwelling to institute Universal design? Under this new proposed ordinance if one is having a custom house built in Davis would they too have to abide?”

    Good questions. Some Universal Design elements would not introduce much in the way of costs – reinforcement for handrails/grab bars for instance (a few dollars). Other Universal Design elements are much more costly – such as a bathroom (approx. $3,000). Yet most homes have a downstairs bathroom anyway, so if it is already planned for, it would not cost anything. It wouldn’t cost any more to put toggle light switches in, or levered door handles. But a downstairs bedroom could be problematic if the configuration of the layout is not conducive to such a feature (say the square footage is too small) and it could add some significant cost. Making halls and doorways wider should not cost a thing extra. This is why your question of cost is so complex. This is why we wanted the next meeting to seriously include a panel of developers who could better describe the costs and problems involved with a Universal Design Ordinance.

    To answer your other question, single family homes of less than 5 units would be exempt from the ordinance. So if you were having a custom house built after purchasing a single lot, it would be exempt from a Universal Design Ordinance. So would very dense projects we think (at least that is what city staff is suggesting – and it makes sense). However, it would be wise to put Universal Design elements into a custom home, bc you never know when you or a family member may become infirm and have need of such features. The idea is to be able to “age in place”…

    Sorry I cannot be more definitive on the cost issue…

  4. Eric Gelber

    Thanks for this overview, Elaine. Universal design, as the name implies, includes features that are useable by and make life easier for everyone. Since enactment of the ADA, many such features have become ubiquitous—such as curb cuts and automatic doors in grocery stores and other businesses and buildings.

    Basic universal design features can be included in most new home construction at little or no additional cost. These include features that allow for later, more customized modifications to be made at less cost. Other accessibility features—which are typically designed primarily for use by people with specific needs or disabilities—can be costly. It’s also important to consider other cost implications. With changing population trends, universal design is likely to increase a home’s resale value. There’s also the impact on quality of life and the ability to age in place and avoid costly assisted living and institutional alternatives. It’s important that any future commission or Council meetings with developers include experts with first-hand experience and knowledge in developing universally designed homes.

    Here’s a publication that gives an overview of the kinds of features that should be or can be included in universally designed homes: [url][/url]http://www.nus.edu.sg/nec/InnoAge/documents/universalhomedesign.pdf.

    In my view, custom built homes should not be exempt from meeting any local accessibility requirements. Housing built today impacts the local community long after the original owners are gone. All housing has to comply with myriad design, construction and safety standards (the California Building Code is about 1600 pages), and basic accessibility should be included among the minimum requirements.

  5. E Roberts Musser

    Eric Gelber: “Basic universal design features can be included in most new home construction at little or no additional cost. These include features that allow for later, more customized modifications to be made at less cost. Other accessibility features—which are typically designed primarily for use by people with specific needs or disabilities—can be costly. It’s also important to consider other cost implications. With changing population trends, universal design is likely to increase a home’s resale value. There’s also the impact on quality of life and the ability to age in place and avoid costly assisted living and institutional alternatives. It’s important that any future commission or Council meetings with developers include experts with first-hand experience and knowledge in developing universally designed homes.”

    Thanks for the additional insights on cost. You make an extremely valid point in terms of resale value and the later costs of institutionalization for those who have failed to incorporate Universal Design elements into their homes. This is why it is so difficult to analyze the true “costs” (there actually may be savings) of Universal Design. I will be very interested to hear from the development community, and I would very much like to hear from Universal Design experts who may have a better handle on things.

    I know I talked to one person at a trade show who sold specially designed zero threshold showers. His daughter was physically handicapped. His estimate of building such a bathroom (specially equipped for someone as physically handcapped as his daughter) was $10,000. However, when we speak of a Universal Design Ordinance, we are not talking about that extensive a requirement, but much more modest features that are far less costly. And I think you do have to take into account the flip side, which is how much will these Universal Design features increase the value of the home and prevent institutionalization.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$ USD
Sign up for