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For boomers, the house of the future

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Universal design may actually be getting universal.

Homebuilders have long given lip service to designing houses that accommodate people of all ages and physical abilities, but few companies actually built them. Now, though, the idea is gaining traction. Big builders such as K. Hovnanian (NYSE: HOV) on the East Coast and Standard Pacific (NYSE: SPF) on the West are touting wheelchair-friendly doorways, shelves and countertops that require less bending and reaching, and master suites on the first floor. And while furniture and housewares manufacturers have already discovered the market for remote-control recliners and ergonomic potato peelers, major appliance manufacturers are now stepping in, with the likes of General Electric (NYSE: GE), Delta and Jacuzzi offering new appliances and fixtures for homeowners with physical limitations.

Traditionally, the market for these products has been the elderly and handicapped, but builders and manufacturers see a bigger prize: middle-aged homeowners who don't need them yet. The beleaguered housing industry is hoping it can attract these buyers with more stylish, less institutional fare such as "smart" kitchen faucets and dishwashers and walk-in spas with "chromatherapy mood lighting."

Garry and Kathleen Houghton are in their 50s and aren't disabled. Still, the $944,000 Craftsman-style home they're building in Sisters, Ore., will be a model of accessibility. The three-bedroom house will be all on one level. Wide doorways will accommodate wheelchairs, as will the tile and wood flooring used instead of carpeting. Oversized showers in each of the three bathrooms will have built-in seats, and in the kitchen, to cut down on back-straining bending and reaching, the oven will have a door that swings open to the side and there'll be no hard-to-get-at upper cabinets.

"We want to be prepared," says Kathleen Houghton, a retired nurse. The Houghtons say they're also creating a haven for their elderly parents, currently living on their own but in declining health.

Although no one tracks the number of homes built with accessibility in mind, new demonstration houses across the country reflect a groundswell of interest. In December, Centex Homes (NYSE: CTX) built a 4,000-square-foot model home in Bristow, Va., with gently sloping sidewalks, lower cabinets for the wheelchair-bound, and a staircase with contrasting-color wood for the sight-impaired. The model has attracted thousands of visitors amid a slow local market, the company says. The two official show houses at February's International Builders Show in Orlando, Fla., featured elevators, wide hallways and shower stalls, and "rocker" light switches easily operated by arthritic hands. And in Omaha, Neb., Curt Hofer Construction has broken ground on a "barrier-free" house that will have lowered closet rods, high electrical sockets and a ramp leading up to stadium-style seating in the media room. The 4,300-square-foot home will open to the public in July and cost $700,000.

Builders and architects who already incorporate accessible design into their projects say demand is growing. McLean, Va., architect William Devereaux says about a third of the 100 large production-home builders he works with nationwide now ask him to include features like the ones he included in the Bristow demonstration house. "Five years ago, no one did," he says. Builder Roy Wendt says sales of his three- and four-bedroom ranch-style homes in the Atlanta area were up 10 percent last year over the year before. Marketed mostly to able-bodied boomers, the homes have higher toilets, pull-out trash containers and more drawers than doors in kitchen cabinets. Wendt started specializing in accessibility seven years ago after two wheelchair-bound visitors couldn't get in the front door of one of his models.

Designers say that installing accessibility features like wider doorways can add as much as 20 percent to the price of a home if it's done as a retrofit, although the cost is negligible if the features are included in the plans for a new house. And many of the new offerings are in the marble-countertop and Tuscan-tile price range. At the International Builders Show, Delta showed a $1,064 faucet that can be turned on and off by tapping it or by waving hands past a sensor. Jacuzzi prominently featured its $10,600 Finestra Therapy Bath, a bubbling spa with a chair-high seat that is entered via a waist-high door. And Gaggenau introduced a $3,300 over-the-range convection oven with a floor that drops down to countertop height at the touch of a button so it can be loaded.

The term "universal design" was coined about two decades ago by the late Ron Mace, an architect who spent most of his life in a wheelchair and who established what is now known as the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. As Mace explained it, universal design would make living spaces fully functional for everyone, not just the disabled. While the idea met with much praise at the time, it didn't catch fire. Proponents soon learned that even things as obviously useful as grab bars in the shower were a turnoff to consumers because they suggested frailty and decline. Not only that: "They were ugly," says Dick Duncan, a spokesman for the center.

Indeed, the concept as it is known today might better be identified as "universal-design lite." Full access is no longer the goal and features that obviously point to disability are left out unless customers request them -- and they usually don't until they actually need them. "I even had trouble convincing a couple in their 80s to put in grab bars," says Vince Butler, a Clifton, Va., remodeler, who retrofits homes for accessibility.

But since one in three Americans will be over 50 by the year 2010, consumers' acceptance is probably inevitable. Marc Hottenroth, leader of industrial design for GE Consumer & Industrial, says aging consumers in hundreds of recent focus groups and in-home observations have expressed frustration with home appliances that require so much bending and reaching. As a result, the company recently rolled out a refrigerator with French doors that is more accessible for people with walkers, front-loading washers and dryers that sit on pedestals for ease of loading, and a "smart" dishwasher that dispenses liquid detergent from a bottle so users won't have to bend down to add soap each time.

A changing legal landscape is encouraging builders to take accessibility seriously. Although the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 requires public places to be barrier-free, no such federal law applies to single-family homes. But 14 states and numerous localities have enacted a patchwork of laws that either mandate builders to make homes more accessible or offer tax credits or other incentives for doing so. Almost two-thirds were passed within the past five years, and nine more states have initiatives pending.

More accessible public spaces -- sidewalk curb cuts, hands-free faucets -- have also changed expectations, says California remodeler Iris Harrell. "People just assume that they'll be able to go anywhere, uninterrupted," Harrell says. The designer soon plans to install an elevator in her own house and to replace three steps with a ramp. She and her partner, both 60, want to make sure they can stay there long after they retire; the changes will also make visits easier for Harrell's brother, recently wheelchair-bound after several surgeries.

Putting in features that you don't really need can have unintended consequences, says Devereaux. Stoves with knobs in front can be helpful for arthritic fingers but a danger to curious toddlers unless there is a locking mechanism. Curbless entry doors and showers can leak. And wider hallways, bathrooms and kitchens may mean smaller bedrooms, dining areas and living rooms.

Anne-Marie and Bill Peters know all about the downsides. Four years ago, they paid $275,000 for a four-bedroom house in Chapel Hill, N.C., with features they loved, including an automated revolving rack in the closet, and shower nozzles set at different heights. But the home's tall countertops were too high for visiting children. And the kitchen cabinet on casters was annoying: Meant to slide out so a wheelchair-bound person could work at the countertop, the cabinet rolled around and got jammed whenever someone tried to open its door. "It drove me crazy," says Anne-Marie Peters, a homemaker. They eventually hired a handyman to install slide-in shelves instead.

Need has a way of turning skeptics into converts, however. When she bought a new home in Atlanta for $250,000, Rhonda Buckley wasn't particularly impressed with the oversize shower, the lever door handles and the fact that there were no steps to the front door. In fact, the 49-year-old marketing manager was more worried that such things would make her seem over-the-hill.

Then she sprained her ankle. The functional benefits of her home became so clear that she recently convinced her elderly parents to buy a similar house down the street. "I never plan to move," says Buckley. "As I get older, this house will be there for me."

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