National design conference focuses on opening spaces for people of all ages, abilities | St. Louis Public Radio

National design conference focuses on opening spaces for people of all ages, abilities

May 2, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Starkloff Disability Institute is known for the pioneering work of its co-founders, Colleen Starkloff and her late husband, Max Starkloff, in making St. Louis and the nation more accessible for people with disabilities.

But in the past decade, the institute has branched out to embrace universal design, which goes much further. Accessibility separates people with mobility issues from everyone else, Starkloff says. Universal design brings people together. She defines universal design as “the design of products and spaces to be usable by the greatest number of people with the least amount of adaptation and design.”

The Starkloff Institute is co-hosting the fifth national Universal Design Conference on May 6-8 at Saint Louis University’s Busch Conference and Student Center, 20 North Grand Boulevard. The conference bills itself as the only conference on universal design in North America.

R.L. Mace Universal Design Institute of Chapel Hill, N.C., the other co-host, carries on the work of the late Ron Mace, who “created the concept of universal design,” Starkloff said. “He grew up with polio and said that design for accessibility ‘draws me out.’” Instead, Mace urged architects and designers, city planners and consumers “to rethink how we design our communities and spaces -- not design especially for a special category. If we design for everybody, we don’t have to look at people in silos,” Starkloff said.

A typical universal-design home might have electrical outlets a little higher off the floor, so someone with a sore back wouldn’t have to bend over to plug in lamps or appliances. The front door would have a peephole at a height that the kids -- or people in wheelchairs -- could see through, and a lever instead of a knob, which would be appreciated by anyone carrying a briefcase and a couple bags of groceries.  At least one entrance into the home would have no steps, anticipating a time when the teenage soccer player in the family sprains her ankle or when an elderly visitor stops by.

Tom Braford said he was aware of the issue of accessible housing well before it became personal, “when my parents got to a point where they couldn’t go up the two or three steps to their back door and we had to build a handicap ramp so they could get to their garage.”

The hassle of retrofitting brought home to him that “with a little bit of forethought, you could avoid all of that. When somebody’s abilities are diminished in some way, they need adaptation right away. If you haven’t planned for it, it can be very disruptive.”

Braford got interested in universal design in connection with his redevelopment of commercial buildings in the Central West End into an “eco-village” that intends to feature cooperative living as well as energy efficiency. He finds many universal design principles to be simple and unobtrusive.

For instance, making doors and hallways wide enough for wheelchairs in every new or rehabbed residence does not scream, “This is for disabled people.” It makes a home more hospitable for guests as well as homeowners who suddenly break a leg or have a knee operation.

Braford, 66, also says that universal design overlaps with the idea of “aging in place,” as the Boomer generation reaches retirement age.

“I’ve noticed that being ‘elderly’ is always 10 years older than what you are,” he joked. “But in the last two or three years, the pace of change is starting to speed up, like my knees are hurting more, my hearing is going faster.”  

AARP, which started targeting the Boomer generation 15 years ago by urging retirement planning, is the conference’s biggest sponsor.

Amy Levner, AARP’s manager of education and outreach for home and family, is the conference’s featured speaker Monday on the topic of universal design concepts applicable to aging in place.

A report for AARP calls the aging-in-place movement a “consumer-driven, person-centered approach” toward an alternative to institutional care. The report, written by Jean C. Accius, cites a prediction by the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics that the U.S.population of adults age 65 and over will nearly double, to 71.5 million in 2030 from 37 million in 2006.

The market for universal-design housing and products is expected to boom along with the older population, and that could have benefits for everyone. Adaptations for fading vision, such as the use of contrasting colors or textures to signal the transition from one room to the next, would help anyone trying to maneuver in a dark house.

Sessions offered Tuesday and Wednesday at the conference include:

  • Collaborative design of outdoor environments.
  • Planning for accessible away-from-home restrooms.
  • How universal design for deaf and hearing-impaired residents can apply to other users.
  • Universal kitchen design.
  • Workplace strategy for universal accessibility.
  • Designing a socially-sustainable bathroom.

The conference kicks off on Monday with a half-day tour of several sites know for their use of universal design, including:

  • The Leather Trade Artist Lofts, 1600 Locust St. downtown, a commercial building that housed leather tanning business and has been renovated to provide 86 apartment and studios for working artists.
  • 6 North Apartments, 4055 Laclede Ave in the Central West End, which is said to be the first fully universally designed, mixed income, multifamily property in the nation. It was developed and is managed by McCormack Baron Salazar.

The conference segues into a continuing education course in Universal Design/Build offered May 9 and 10 by the St. Louis Home Builders Association at its office at 10104 Old Olive Street Road in Creve Coeur.