Local Commentary

A Penny For Your Thoughts: The News of Greater Falls Church

Ever heard of Universal Design? You may have read about it, but never really thought about how it might apply to you and your family. That’s all about to change. At least, that’s what advocates of Universal Design hope.

Universal Design focuses on the design of products and environments that can be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. In a home built with Universal Design principles, most daily tasks can be performed easily by all residents and visitors, regardless of ability. At the Prince William County Universal Design Demonstration house in Bristow, Virginia, just 30 minutes from the Beltway, visitors can examine the new ideas in a real-life setting.

The demonstration house is a standard Centex Homes model, with a few tweaks. The house resembles all the other homes in the new development. When you look closely, however, you can see that access to the front door is from two ways: a traditional two-riser concrete step, and a sloped sidewalk from the driveway. Unlike a traditional ramp, the sidewalk isn’t so noticeable because of landscaping. On the porch, a regular 36-inch door accommodates most visitors, but a sidelight panel can swing open to provide a 60-inch entry when needed. The threshold is flush with the porch, and the exterior doors are installed with a neoprene seal that fits tightly. The porch slab is sloped slightly away from the house to allow for water drainage.

The floor plan is more open than in traditional designs, allowing for wheelchair turning movements, and at least one bedroom and bath, often the master suite, are located on the main floor. The guest bath at the demonstration house is sill-less and has the necessary turning radius. Blocking is installed in walls for future grab bars in all the bathrooms. Another element that I found nifty was the installation of the electrical outlets 18 inches above the floor instead of the usual 12 inches. No more getting down on your knees to plug in the iron! Hardwood floors throughout are easy to clean, but the builder provides options for carpeting if desired.

One of the most intriguing features was the elevator option. Planning ahead using Universal Design can provide for future needs and convenience, so an elevator shaft was built into the center of the house. Today’s nice-sized kitchen pantry and second floor landing computer workstation easily can become a mode of access to every level of the house. Simply remove the floor joists and flooring to insert an elevator mechanism. The center of the basement floor has a 12 inch depression measuring 5 feet by 5 feet to accommodate the necessary hydraulics.

There are lots more features, but you should plan to see them for yourself and visualize how you and your family might use Universal Design principles. The house is open for free tours through early Spring. For more information, log on to www.pwcgov.org/ud/.