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 .


Is My Home Ready for a Small Wind Energy System?

Pick up any newspaper these days and I will bet you a dollar to a donut you will find at least one article about energy. Of specific interest lately is wind energy.

SkyStream 3.7 Small Wind Energy System, Manistee, Michigan, COPYRIGHT © 2009 Mary McGraw-Bigelow All Rights Reserved Why? Wind is clean energy. And it’s totally renewable—just wait for the next breeze. As a wind energy installer, it is a very powerful feeling leaving a home knowing the homeowner is producing their own energy. They have their own private power plant.

With so much information and so many points of view whirling around, I hear a lot of confusion over the variety of wind energy systems available specifically to homeowners.

There are basically two different types of residential wind generator systems:

1. Off Grid – These systems require some type of battery storage for the energy created. They are not tied to the energy company.

2. Grid Tied - The majority of small wind energy systems feed the energy produced to the power company. These are required to have an automatic shut off when the grid is down. Otherwise, you could produce energy and feed it back to the grid while some poor line worker is trying to restore power to your neighbors. The poor line worker would get a heck of a shock!

The majority of wind energy systems we install are Grid Tied. For most households the best source of backup power is the electric company’s grid! Why? There will be times when the wind doesn’t blow so you won’t create any energy and for the average household the draw will normally be more than their wind generator can produce. So that back up from the energy company is still necessary.

Now the conversation moves toward, "So then I can sell the extra I make to the electric company?" Well…that is another deep subject (sorry, I had to say it!) and depends on the number of KiloWatts per month or year your home uses. So I ask.

With that you would think I asked a question about the periodic table of elements. It’s unfortunate but most people simply don’t know how much electricity they use.

I must confess, I never knew until getting into this field and that’s ok. Now I know. Awareness is half the battle! And now our family can take action to cut down on wasting electricity.

So how many average KiloWatts does your household use in a year? There are a couple ways to find out:

1. Many utility companies now have a web site where you can check your history. You will need to register and will need your bill handy because you will need your account number and some other personal information. I have found this to be the simplest way.

2. If you don’t have access to the internet you can go through your records of paper bills (uggh!), add the KiloWatt hours you have used over "x" number of months, divide by "x" number of months and voila, you have an average. The KiloWatt hours on my bill are listed in the upper right hand corner. Each utility will vary where KiloWatt hours are placed on the bill.

3. If you can’t access the internet or paper billing records you will have to call your utility company (double uggh!) and have them send it to you. This is always last resort!

In climates like the Midwest it is good to get a 12-month average since you have extreme swings in temperature throughout the year. Most air conditioning is used in the summer, which is powered by electricity. Most of our homes are heated with some type of gas or fuel oil so the electric utility is normally lower during winter months.

In warmer climates with less extreme temperature swings can go with a 6-month average, selecting every other month.

For those of you who pay utilities on a "budget" program, there are several reasons to reconsider. Unfortunately people tend to look at the dollar amount of their bill and not the KiloWatt hours used. If the bill stays the same for 10 months out of the year most people are unaware of times when they are using more energy. This causes less conservation again due to unawareness and leads to higher utility bills.

Once we know how much energy the home requires we can determine the best turbine for our situation. Check back for part II where we discuss the various wind energy system makes the most sense for your home.

Mary McGraw-Bigelow is a renewable energy sales representative for Contractors Building Supply . Mary is facilitator of her local LEED for Homes Member Circle and has worked with clients from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast.

COPYRIGHT © 2009 Mary McGraw-Bigelow All Rights Reserved

Photo: SkyStream 3.7 Small Wind Energy System, Manistee, Michigan


How To Choose An Architect

blueprint.jpgOther than choosing a spouse, this may be one of the most important relationship decisions you make in your lifetime. Considering that the home you will be building is a legacy that will impact many users and generations to come (statistics show we live in a home for an average of about 7 years,) it is not a decision to be made lightly. And like a marriage, you will develop a relationship with your architect or architectural designer that can make the building process even more enjoyable or, well, one can only imagine.

As you begin your adventure in home building I recommend three very important aspects to consider when choosing your architect.

  1. Do your research.
  2. Be prepared.
  3. Communicate your needs and goals clearly.

Do Your Research

The Value of Good Blueprints: I cannot overestimate the value of a good architect and properly prepared plans. Today with the do-it-yourself CAD programs, it seems anyone can design a home. As builders, we have built homes that have been designed by many different architects. It doesn’t take long to know which architects are favourites. And it often doesn’t have anything to do with how much the architect charges. It’s funny how some architects designs are difficult to build. Or the blueprints of other architects have space or traffic flow that just doesn’t make sense. When you are working with an inexperienced designer, the mistakes can be disastrous. One architect whose plans we built regularly was known for not leaving enough headroom for the stair opening, and bathrooms that were too small. Once a builder knows that about an Architect, he can watch out for those details. But how can you? Check with your builder.

Get References, Referrals and Recommendations: First, if you have already selected a builder, talk to him about it. Chances are he will have some pretty good advice for you. You can also talk to friends who are happy with their homes, but many of them might not realize the problems that the builder encountered while building their home. Another good research tool is the Parade of Homes. There’s nothing like walking in a home and experiencing it to understand how a designer works.

Set Realistic Goals: Let’s face it. We all want more in a home than our budget or the square footage allows for. You know in your head that there is only so much that can fit in your desired size of home, but your heart wants to convince you otherwise. Also, size doesn’t always determine price. Many other factors like quality of finishing materials, structural and design elements, site preparation and accommodation will affect the final price. If you are realistic and specific up front with your architect, it will save you heartache later.

Check the Portfolio: Has the architect actually designed homes similar to what you have in mind? There is a big difference in designing a Lakefront home or a house on an infill lot than for a home on acreage or in a neighbourhood.

Trust Your Instincts: When you are finally interviewing your potential architect and everything else seems to be right, trust your instincts. Do you think you are going to enjoy working with the person, the firm? If not, keep looking. There’s too much at stake.

Be Prepared

Understand What you Want. I know this sounds obvious, but it is important. Collect magazine pictures, lots of them. And maybe features from other plans that are particularly appealing. This may most easily communicate to your architect the look and feel that you are after. You can tell your architect that you want a home that looks French Country, but what if his idea of that is different than your expectations?

Understand your budget. Your architect is not going to pay the bills from your builder. If you have a specific amount that you are able to invest, you need to know before you get to the cash register that you are over budget. Many architects are unaware of how much it will cost to build their blueprints. Aside from variables like your choice of finishing materials, how they structure a house can affect the cost to build it dramatically.
Check the architect’s portfolio to make sure that he designs homes for your budget. I have a favourite architect that I like to work with when there is a limited budget. When I say something like, “What do you think about putting a Cathedral ceiling in here?” and he responds with something like, ‘Well, did you want a 2 car garage instead of 3?’ I know where I stand. A good architect is going to have an understanding of how much things will cost.

Understand Your Lifestyle. Your architect is not going to live in your home. You are. Another obvious statement I know. But you may know that you usually have more than one person working in the kitchen, so the typical ‘work triangle’ may not be the best approach for you. Or that organizing your stuff is a top priority, so planning for the appropriate storage spaces, whether inside or outside your home, had better be too. Also, consider furniture layouts. A great big large room may look good on paper, but where has your architect put the room entrances for traffic flow? Will you be able to layout your furniture in a pleasing way? Make sure he is able to understand how you live, and then when he makes recommendations, take into consideration his professional expertise.


Make Sure You Tell All: Now that you know what you are looking for, and how much you want to invest, you need to tell your architect. There is no substitute for clearly conveying this to your architect. Don’t assume that he knows, because it seems obvious to you that something should be done a certain way. Remember, you are working with someone who is part Engineer, and part Artist. Enough said!

Get it in Writing: I have always had good experiences with the architects I have worked with but it is always a good idea to get it in writing. How much will the plans cost? How long will they take? How much will it cost to make changes? What if he does not have them completed when expected?

Questions to Answer: How willing is the architect to work with you? If you have a unique lot, would he be willing to walk the site with you? Does he prefer to do a typical ‘stock’ type home with front and back views, or can he think outside the box? How long does the design process typically take? How does the architect price his work? Has the architect done a broad range of designs? Does he have stock plans that you could modify to suit you? Is the architect familiar with the building codes in the area you are building your home?

Some architects will take a lot of information from you and then begin the process of the preliminary drawings. Others will sketch things out right in front of you to make sure that they are on the right track.

Review your preliminary plans with your builder. Does he think the house will come in on budget?

Remember, there is NO such thing as the perfect house. But by doing your homework, understanding your needs, goals and budget, and finding the right architect for your job you will have a rewarding home to be enjoyed for many years and hopefully have fun building it too.

Yours Truly,

Some additional thoughts:

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