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Builders Urged to Consider Future Mobility Issues

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Sunday Herald, March 11, 2007.

Universal Design a Growing Trend as Population Ages

Winnipeg--Build today for a mobility-challenged future tomorrow.

That's the message a couple of occupational therapists are trying to get across to new home buyers, home builders and real estate agents. They want them to consider that today's health and agility may not outlast a person's desire to stay in their home.

Statistics suggest that's often the case: late last year, a Royal LePage study looked at how one-third of Canada's population is over 50 and how the vast majority of those pentagenarians have no desire to move into so-called "senior's housing."

While some of that market is looking to condominiums to ease lifestyle, as the human population's longevity increases and the desire to hold off moving into assisted-living homes for as long as possible, the likelihood that more homeowners will face mobility challenges before it's time to leave the home is high.

That is the force driving what's emerging as a new philosophy: universal design. And at the new-home stage, it's something that can be incorporated at little extra cost.

"We used to work in the spinal cord unit at Health Sciences Centre, and as occupational therapists we are trained to look at the way people function," says occupational therapist Corinne Klassen.

"When our patients were sent home, we quickly realized that most homes are not accessible for patients convalescing from injuries that impaired their mobility. Standard homes have stairs, small doorways and other barriers that make it extremely difficult for mobility-impaired people to do the day-to-day tasks we take for granted."

Many of the changes behind universal design are almost invisible to the average observer: a 91-centimetre (36-inch) main entrance door, 81-centimetre (32-inch) interior doors (instead of the standard 76 centimetres/30 inches), a step-free entrance and wider hallways.

"The main issue here is that we're all getting older," says Angie Maidment, Klassen's partner in Therapy First.

"For example, one of my clients just had a stroke. So he now has mobility problems, and his wife has memory problems. They didn't want to move, so they had to spend about $25,000 for a lift to help him negotiate a set of stairs. It's just not cheap to retrofit a house."

But designed in at the beginning, a plan for the future is quite inexpensive, she said. And to the casual observer, it appears simply as good design precepts, not necessarily concessions to any physical impairment.

Klassen adds that another client, wanting to prepare for the physical challenges that come with aging, was looking to enlist a builder to build him a home with universal design features.

"It turned out to be incredibly difficult to find a builder that would build that kind of home from scratch," she says. "Out of five builders, one responded. That--by necessity--was the builder he went with."

Edmonton architect Ron Wickman says that's not surprising.

"The reality is that most of today's housing communities are built for able-bodied people ... We have to educate the general public, various levels of government and the private sector (builders) about the merits of universal design concept homes."

Wickman said, like it or not, old age is coming. "A huge tidal wave of seniors with mobility issues is coming, and it's going to hit hard," he warns.

While universal design is the ultimate goal when designing a home for persons with limited mobility, there are actually three levels of user-friendliness: visitable, accessible and universal.

Making a home visitable means that a mobility-impaired individual can get to and through the front door without incident, and then can negotiate their way around the main floor without encountering any major obstructions.

Winnipeg realtors' market analyst Peter Squire says the universal design concept makes sense.

"It makes sense that universal design will be a growing trend--older people with knee, hip and back issues would benefit tremendously from the user-friendly features."

Copyright Winnipeg Free Press.