May 22, 2006

"Universal Design Features" as Code for Bad Design

Adrienne Schmitz is director of residential community development at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C. below she writes on the demographics affecting housing trends. In an otherwise helpful article there is the phrase "universal Design features."

Too often the phrase "Universal Design features" is used as an oxymoron.

Design is a comprehensive process providing unity and coherence to a project. Inserting outside "features" or "elements" may or may not be appropriate but the need to do so, and more troubling still, the need to identify them as Universal Design, would indicate that the project itself is designed to be accommodating to less than the full range of potential users. In fact, there is no such thing, no such canon of prefabricated solutions or products, as "Universal Design elements." Universal Design is a set of seven principles and their specific application ought to generate unique elements that are consistent to the ovearll project design.

Universal design is a grammar not a lexicon.

If a specific design solution developed in a universally designed context is transplanted into a project that is fundamentally exclusive (i.e. not inclusive of the full spectrum of users from the conceptual & design phase; not Universal Design) then what we have is no different than a retrofit.

Piecemeal insertion of such elements reveals that there was an error at the design level; that inclusion was an afterthought. Such projects may approximate the obsolete "accessible design" approach of "special" accommodation but, like New Urbanism as currently practiced, are flawed.

Housing trends reflect changing demographics

Today's home shoppers demand better homes and neighborhoods than ever, and developers are meeting the challenge. The best communities are places where people can build their lives -- where everything they need -- schools, stores, jobs and meaningful social relationships -- are nearby.

Driving America's housing trends are changing demographics. The nation's population is getting older and more diverse, with recent immigrants make up a growing share of the mix. Households are increasingly made up of smaller families, non-families and single people. A majority of women now hold jobs outside the home. All of these factors influence the kinds of homes and neighborhoods people want.

Less than a quarter of all households are the "traditional" married couples with children, while more than a quarter consist of a single person. Despite decreasing household size, the average size of new homes keeps increasing -- 2,140 square feet today, up from about 1,600 square feet 20 years ago.

Just looking at averages, however, doesn't get at the complexity of changes in the marketplace. While the majority of home buyers still choose large houses, often in far-flung suburban developments, growing numbers are settling into townhouses, semi-attached small-lot homes and multifamily homes.

Housing affordability is a growing problem, not only for lower-income households but for the middle class. Nationally, the median price of a new home is $230,000, but averages mask the problem. In some of the largest, most active markets, the median price of a new home is more than $500,000.

The baby boomer generation (those born between 1945 and 1966) is so large that its changing needs will continue to shape housing for some time. While many baby boomers will remain in their current homes, some will downsize or add a second home, either in a resort or an urban location. As they age, baby boomers will require homes and neighborhoods designed for physical limitations. Universal design addresses those needs. Homes with open floor plans, wider doorways, brighter lighting, and more convenient appliances, showers and shelving enable people in wheelchairs or with vision difficulties to stay self-sufficient.

In St. Louis, an 80-unit apartment building called 6 North was built on an urban, former warehouse site chosen for its access to transit, employment and amenities. Units include universal design features and about half are restricted to moderate-income residents.

The children of baby boomers are as large a force as the baby boomers themselves. Sometimes called the echo boom, this group now moving through early adulthood faces serious challenges with housing affordability. Both baby boomers and their grown children are fueling a back-to-the-city movement, buying or renting elegant older town homes and apartments and hip new lofts in center-city neighborhoods.

Recycling old buildings is a significant trend in cities where historic structures offer high ceilings, wood floors and elaborate moldings. Old buildings and neighborhoods are so desirable that some new projects emulate old ones: Trendy "loft apartments," bring the character of rehabilitated old industrial buildings to new construction.

At the same time, many suburban regions are developing new, urban-style districts to appeal to those who want urban character and amenities in a suburban location. The New Urbanism (also called "Traditional Neighborhood Development") is making its mark on planning and development: denser developments; smaller, clustered residential lots that conserve usable open space; mixed-use town centers that combine shops, offices and residences; and the integration of public transit into development.

A noteworthy example is Stapleton, the 4,700-acre redevelopment of Denver's old airport. Stapleton combines a broad range of housing types and all of the amenities and services that make a town. Streets are in a traditional grid pattern that promotes walking.

Consumers place a growing emphasis on "green," or environmentally friendly housing. Alcyone in downtown Seattle is a rental apartment complex that combines energy-efficient construction and utilities, low-volatility paints and carpets, and transportation alternatives for residents -- transit access, bike storage, and car sharing options. A rooftop vegetable garden is irrigated with recycled rainwater.


Posted by rollingrains at May 22, 2006 04:29 PM