House designs fit longer life expectancies

When homebuilders include universal design elements in their new homes, it improves the quality of life for homebuyers.

Universal designs, better known as accessible designs, bring conveniences to homes that not only benefit the disabled and elderly, but everyone — no matter a person’s size, age or physical abilities. Thus the term universal design. For example, a zero-step entrance will accommodate a wheelchair as well as make entry easier with a baby stroller.

As life expectancy rises and modern medicine increases the survival rate of those with injuries and illnesses, there is a growing interest in universal design. And in recent years, the concept has become even more prevalent as baby boomers move into the later years of life and look to age gracefully in their homes.

Universal design features may include an elevator or chair lift; flat, ground-level entrances without stairs; kitchen counters at different heights to accommodate various tasks, 42-inch-wide hallways for easy mobility, or lever handles for opening doors rather than turning knobs.

“Many of these features may help with accessibility, and add convenience, but at the same time they help make a great home design,” said Chris Naatz, vice president of sales for D.R. Horton Chicago.

An AARP survey found that 62 percent of respondents age 45 and older had a parent, spouse or another family member who had difficulty with walking, getting in and out of bed, negotiating stairs, or other orthopedic problems, often requiring use of a cane, wheelchair, walker or motorized scooter.

While people are becoming more aware of universal design, some communities are taking steps to promote it. For example, Bolingbrook has an ordinance requiring every new home built in the city to have basic universal design features.

River Hills by Orleans Homes is a new home community in Bolingbrook that features no threshold entries, wider doorways and wider hallways to comply with the ordinance. “We receive very positive feedback from people,” said Pat Kalamatas, sales manager for the community. “People notice the wider hallways, and they make the home feel bigger. It also helps the resale value. It’s definitely a good thing.”

Today many homebuilders feature some universal design elements as an included feature in their new homes while others may offer them as an option.

For example, D.R. Horton Chicago includes elevated dishwashers in all of its new home communities. “It’s just kitchen-friendly. It’s more convenient. And it preserves one’s back,” Naatz said.

Drawer dishwashers are popular now. They don’t require as much bending over to load and unload and because there’s no door in the way, they’re more easily used from a sitting position.

At Pulte Homes’ Del Webb active-adult communities, the threshold into the shower and tub are minimized, many electrical outlets are raised higher than you normally see and the light switches are lower, said Steve Atchison, president of the Illinois division of Pulte Homes. “We’re also getting hard surfaces into walk-in closets, which will make it easier to access with walkers or wheel chairs,” he said.

A lot of buyers like the French door refrigerators with the drawers up higher and the freezer placed lower because it’s used less frequently.

Some builders may not include universal design features in their homes, but they will provide them upon request of the homebuyer or as an upgrade.

At all its Carillon communities, D.R. Horton will install grab bars, comfort-height toilets that sit higher off the ground, and no threshold showers at a client’s request.

Del Webb conducts an annual baby boomer survey on a national level to understand trends and what buyers want. Rollout trays in base cabinets, which make it much easier to access pots and pans, was a popular want, Atchison said. “So this is something we offer as an upgrade. People love them.”

Semi-custom and custom builders are able to implement more drastic changes to a floor plan to satisfy the needs of their clients.

At Henning Estates, Rock Creek Homes offers midpriced, semi-custom ranch homes with 1,800 to 2,260 square feet of stair-free living space. Although these homes offer one-level living, the builder offers homebuyers the opportunity to modify any available floor plan. They can expand the floor plan, add volume ceilings and relocate interior walls.

Sometimes people want to remain in their homes that they know and love. Yet, homes in the past were primarily designed for young families and don’t provide the safety and convenience that older people need.

Windsor Lifestyles in Barrington provides specialized services for the growing population of retirees and seniors, including home maintenance and remodeling.

Owned by Christopher Cope and his mother, Jane, the company is CAPS credentialed. “This means that we’re experienced, aging-in-place experts certified by the National Home Builders Association and AARP,” said Cope, who has a background in home building.

“Usually we receive calls when a certain need arises that requires some remodeling or installation of a particular item. We work closely with other agencies that often determine whether someone needs our services,” he said.

For example, when residents of a two-story home are no longer able to do stairs, the company might install a chair lift or elevator, or turn an unused room on the first floor into a master bedroom.

The company may be called upon to make a home wheelchair accessible, remodel a bath with accessible features or install grab bars.

“We do this without sacrificing aesthetics,” Cope said. “For example, grab bar selections don’t even look like grab bars. They’re brass, ergonomic, and they look very stylish. We always try to make things look less industrial.

“We keep people in their homes as long as feasible while making their homes enjoyable and as accessible as needed.”

When it comes to universal design, some people may want to adapt their home before a disability or need arises so they know they will be able to move around their house comfortably and safely.

Planning for the future might involve putting a bathroom wall reinforcement in place for grab bars. This must be installed before drywall and finishing a bathroom. Once installed, they may go unused for years, but when the need arises, homeowners can easily install the bars without tearing down walls.

With universal design features, homes will become more functional for a wide range of homeowners with and without limited abilities. Everyone will benefit.

Homebuilders across the suburbs attempt to be more 'green'

  Hardwood floors, like these throughout the main rooms of the Wilmette model at Edgewater in Elgin, are easier to navigate than carpet for those who need a wheelchair or walker. Photos by John Starks/
  At Edgewater, PulteÂ’s Del Webb active adult community in Elgin, homes are designed for an aging population. Light switches are mounted at lower heights and door handles are easier to turn. John Starks/
  A raised dishwasher that require less bending over was installed in the kitchen of the Palm Springs model at Carillon in Pingree Grove. John Starks/

Spring Home Show

Each Friday until march 25, the daily herald will cover a different design topic. Pick up a Daily Herald to find features and listings of the best homes available in the suburbs.

Feb. 25: The green scene

March 4: Urban inspired

March 11: Accessible design

March 18: Brush strokes

March 25: Storage space