What is Universal Design & Why You Should Care?

In our company, we believe Universal Design is extremely important. We’d like every home to incorporate Universal Design concepts out of desire, but not by law. So what is it and why is it so important?

So, What is Universal Design?

According to North Carolina State University Center for Universal Design, the intent of Universal Design is to “simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal Design benefits people of all ages and abilities.”

There are a lot of names people use in place of Universal Design: barrier free, handicap accessible, ADA compliant, and many more. Universal Design, I think, is the best name for this concept because to me accessibility is not just for "them folks" in wheelchairs. It is for everyone regardless of age and current physical ability. It’s universal.

So, What does Universal Design Look Like? Copyright 2008 Heartland Builders LLC

Click here for a full floor plan. Here are some features that are very important in the design of the home which are basic to Universal Design :

1. Exterior Doors - Without question should be at least 36" wide.

2. Interior Doors - Bedrooms, bathrooms, laundry rooms, common area doors - 36" wide While many sources recommend 32" doors, keep in mind a person in a wheelchair likely will scrape their knuckles as they go through the door opening that is only 32” wide. Remember, this is about comfort and dignity too. I once priced out doors for a home including 10 doors ranging from 32" to 36" wide. The cost to go with the wider doors didn’t even total $100 - for the entire house (not per door). No brainer !

3. Wider Halls - Minimum 42", better if halls are 48". Please note that halls are a waste of space. Eliminate them or reduce them and you will increase the functional space in your home.

4. Clear Floor Space (otherwise known as Turning Radius) – Especially in kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry a turning radius equaling 5′. What is the benefit? If you utilized a wheelchair you would have the ability to enter and function without obstacles in these parts of your home. For those without wheelchairs, a little elbow room for carrying laundry baskets or groceries.

5. My personal favorite: A Zero Step Entry - What is that? No steps into your home from the front porch and from the garage into the home. Imagine, not having to worry about steps as you bring home groceries. There are so many benefits to this feature.

6. Wider Stairs - Minimum 42", better if 48".

7. Certified Aging-In-Place Specialist - There are many other features associated with Universal Design. Their necessity for you depends on your needs. Make sure you work with a Certified Aging-In-Place Specialist and member of your local home builder association who can asses and implement exactly what you need in order to live a comfortable life in your home.

Benefits of Universal Design

Thanks to wider doors, wider halls, wider stairs and clear space your home will appear larger and will feel more open. Wider doors, wider halls and wider stairs will allow you to carry furniture throughout your home much easier.

So you are 30 years old and own your home. If the home incorporates the basic features of Universal Design, guests will be able to visit your home without limitation. Imagine if your grandparents or Aunt Millie is in a wheelchair or requires the use of a walker. They could visit without limitation and feel welcome.

Or imagine you are 65. Retirement is just 10 years away (no please, not that long!). Your parents may still be around. Mom and Dad could come visit your home without limitation as well. Not to mention, you are probably thinking about your own future AND want to remain in your home for as long as possible. A home that has incorporated Universal Design is livable for much longer than a home without such features.

The Big Question: How Much Does it Cost?

1. Wider Doors - Under $100 for the entire home.
2. Wider Halls and Stairs - Hard to answer this one, but under generally around $500.
3. Zero Step Entry - this one depends on the size of the home but generally around $1,000.
4. Levered Door Handles, Light Switches a Little Lower on the Wall, Rocker Switches – Shouldn’t cost more than other styles.

Wow! If all you do is 1 and 2, you can have an accessible home for under $500. Better yet, for under $1,500 you can have a home that is really accessible to you and everyone. It makes a great deal of sense. Rich Kogelschatz

I am a proponent of Universal Design for one reason: I believe that it is my responsibility as a builder to provide value for my customers when building their home. To me there is no greater value than accessibility. If something were to happen to you or your family, without accessibility your home has little value to you.

So when building new or remodeling, consider Universal Design. You won’t regret it.


Richard Kogelschatz CGB CAPS of Heartland Builders LLC was recently named 2008 Builder of the Year and is President of his local Home Builder Association , chair of Great Lakes Green 2008 and is a past recipient of the ZeroStep builder and Disability Advocates awards .


How To Choose A Builder

‘The 7 Deadly Mistakes to Avoid when Choosing a Builder’

blueprint2.jpgBuilding your new home may be one of the biggest investments you make in a lifetime, so you are right in doing your research first so that you can do it right. But did you know, who you choose to build it can impact the outcome dramatically.

Now I am not talking about the horror building stories that we’ve all heard or read about: the home that never got finished, the builder that cut corners and more, the chainsaw massacre remodel job. They are out there and in some cases true. I am talking about how much your builder’s experience and expertise can affect the decisions you make while building your home. The difference can be the creation of the home of your dreams or just another home. So use these tips, and choose wisely.

Mistake #1 - Failure to do proper background investigation and research

Don’t be shy about asking. If they are a reputable builder, they will want you to know their credentials. The Home Builder’s Association (HBA) will be able to tell you if the builder has any complaints against him or if he has been involved in any contractor related legal actions. Ask for references and then talk to them. Ask questions like:

  • Did the builder stay on budget?
  • Was the builder helpful with materials, finishes, recommendations?
  • Did the builder stay within the projected completion time range?
  • Did the builder return calls quickly?
  • When problems arose, how quickly was the builder able to respond to them satisfactorily?
  • Are they registered with the local Home Builders Association (HBA)?
  • How long have they been working with the same trades?
  • Have they won any awards?
  • What do they feel they excel at?

Today the building process is very complicated. Code and industry changes are happening regularly. The number of choices in materials and construction techniques has risen exponentially in the last 10 years. There are too many options, and it is a difficult process. If they are registered with the HBA there are programs and training to keep them in touch with industry trends and changes.

They say a pick-up truck makes for a great office. If you’re not so sure, check to see that they have good management skills or a strong team behind them. This won’t guarantee a better job, but it usually means that the process will go more smoothly as the builder will not have to see to everything personally.

  • Check with the local HBA to see if there have been any complaints
  • Ask for references and then talk to them.
  • Ask for the names of some of their trades and ask them if they like working for the builder? How well does he resolve problems? Does he pay on time? Does he set high job site standards? Does he cut corners on the job site? *Please handle this sensitively. Trades can be very loyal to their builder so don’t risk your future relationship with them.

Mistake #2 – Failure to choose the right builder for your job

Not every custom house build project needs the same kind of a builder. Consider your needs. Are you looking for a one man artisan who pays attention to every detail in your home? Or is it important to you that your home be built on a tight schedule and problems and challenges are addressed quickly and efficiently?

Assess your needs by asking yourself these Questions:

  • How much time do I have to invest in the home building process?
  • How much research am I you able to do for the products and finishes?
  • How much time do I have to select the material finishes?
  • How much guidance are you prepared to offer your builder in how you want your home built?

For instance, some builders are expert craftsmen. Everything they do is on the custom level. If you are looking for a lot of detailed woodwork, you might be better suited to a builder who either, 1) does it himself and stakes his reputation on it, or 2) has his own skilled people doing the work, rather than subbing the work out to (possibly) the lowest bidder.

Some builders offer a much more streamlined approach to building your home, which will save you time and may save you money. Of course you may not have the full ‘custom’ approach to every detail in the house, but do you really want to be picking out every last little thing on your house?

Mistake #3 – Failure to choose a builder you like and trust

Signing with a builder is a big commitment. If you discover halfway through the construction of your new home that you don’t like your builder, or he is too busy to ever get back to you, it is a difficult mistake to undo. If everything else checks out with the builder, go with your instincts. Do you feel you can trust him? Do you think you will enjoy working with this builder/firm for the next 6 months or so?

If not, find someone else before it’s too late. Don’t cheat yourself of the fun and excitement that comes with building a home by making a poor choice of builder.

Mistake #4 – Failure to get it in writing

Get your estimate in writing. Have the builder specify what is included in the price. Sometimes items that you see in a model home, may not be included in his standard pricing. Ask the builder for his allowance amounts for things like lighting fixtures, flooring, cabinetry. Then pay a visit with his suppliers and see if those allowances are realistic. Just how much you can get for that price? Some builders will put in lower amounts for their allowances because it makes the bid price look lower. But what you don’t pay for up front, may cost you more down the line.

If you don’t think the allowances will cover what you want to put in the home, how will the excess amount be handled? Will you have to pay for it in cash? Can you include it in your mortgage?

Have your builder specify on the estimate a list of the standard materials used, including model numbers if appropriate. It is difficult to get a good job and durability from inferior quality materials. If price is your biggest concern, I recommend building a smaller home, before paying for inferior materials or poor quality workmanship. These will not only decrease your enjoyment of your home, but will affect your resale value as well. You know what they say, “You pay for it now, or you pay for it later. Either way you pay for it.” I have found that to be true.

Get a signed Contract in writing. Please read your contract, or better yet, have a lawyer review it. You don’t want to be stuck in a contract that only benefits and protects the builder. You might consider including performance goals, ie. job completion dates, guarantees on estimates, back-up should something happen to the builder personally.

Mistake #5 – Failure to confirm liability insurance

Just because a builder has a licence doesn’t mean that he is insured against injuries, job site accidents, storm damage or other unforeseen hazards. Ask your builder to see his certificate showing that he is up to date and fully covered with liability and damage insurance. Different areas use different names for their insurance – check with the local HBA for standard coverage requirements.

Mistake #6 – Failure to understand the Builder’s Warranties

Call the HBA and find out what the local industry standard is for a home warranty. If your builder doesn’t offer at least the average warranty, find a different builder.

Mistake #7 – Failure to ask for help

I have been in the building industry for years, and I don’t know it all. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you have to be the expert on everything. Ask for help. But do be careful where you get your advice from. Many people like giving it, but are they really qualified to give you valuable advice. I have heard much advice on the job site from well intentioned trades people. They told me about the mistakes I was making, and how ‘nobody’ does it that way, ‘everybody’ does it this way.

Today your choices are vast and your options many. You can’t know it all. So do ask for help from experienced sources.

Congratulations on your decision to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. Happy building!

Yours Truly,

Some additional thoughts:

While choosing a builder is a very important detail, do not overlook the value of good plans. See ‘How to Choose an Architect’ and ‘Tips on How to Design your Dream Home’ for more information.


Budget The Building So You Can Build The Budget

That statement seems quite simple to say and yet in over thirty years of home building experience I find “building a home that exceeds the budget” rated very high on customer’s fears; even though most people would choose the New Home that is sized and decorated to their liking.

When I ask what they have heard or experienced, it relates to two main areas; poor communication between the Builder and the Owner, and changing the scope of the project after it’s begun. A true Professional Builder should spend ADEQUATE time with you to explore all the expectations you have for size of home, how simple or complex of a design, it’s location on the site, how much detail in finishes, etc. along with your lifestyle and special features. Taking this information the Builder should be able to properly budget the project.

Setting up accurate budgets combined with clear, complete Plans, Specifications and Contract will start a project on the right foot. This alone is not the complete answer though. Regular communication updating costs and options desired during construction are a must. This will allow for adjustments before the Budget gets off track.

If you want to change or add something to your home during construction, a Change Order should be used before the change is made. This will keep an accurate account of where the budget stands.

Finally, using a professional Custom Builder, timely communication and good paperwork will position you to “Build the Budget” and hopefully have an enjoyable experience.

Dan Diephuis is the owner of Diephuis Builders , Inc. and winner of the HBAGGR 2006 Custom Builder of the Year award.