I’m Scott, one of the founders of The Universal Design Project. This page will give you information and insight into our business, tailored toward you as an architect.
We’re looking for architects throughout the USA to each co-design plans for a universally and financially accessible home with us.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, we are asking this to be an in-kind donation, though we do have a long-term strategy to pay you for any usage of the design work we create together.
Is your interest piqued? Grab a cup of coffee and read on…
???? The Vision
Our vision is for every community across the USA to have a surplus of homes and opportunities for social participation that are universally and financially accessible. Including yours.
What this means: we want to see America’s housing market be much more welcoming to people affected by disability. If an individual with a disability, a spouse, a family member, or a friend needs to find an accessible place to live (or visit the people someone cares about), it shouldn’t be a difficult, stressful, and costly process like it is today. The physical and mental health benefits to this are endless.
Reaching that point may take decades, but a significant shift in the housing market toward more functional and universally accessible homes is direly needed.
???? Our Perspective
A universally accessible home…
- …is as usable as possible for as many people as possible.
- …makes everyday activities easy to perform.
- …provides access to the entire home.
Universal design is for everyone, despite confusion about it only being about aging and disability. While interest in universal design is increasing in popularity, it’s rare to find great examples of it. This is because it’s difficult to understand the functional needs of all possible users.
???? The Backstory
I broke my neck in a skiing accident in 1999 and have been a quadriplegic ever since. Finding a place to live that allows me to do my everyday tasks as best as possible has always required some level of costly modification or compromise on functionality. This led to us ask…
Why is it so difficult for people with disabilities and their families to find homes that they can easily use?
In short, it’s not common practice for homes to be designed and built from the start to consider the needs of anyone and everyone. It’s typically thought that if a health need or disability arises that people will modify their home or move into a home customized for their specific needs. Unfortunately, both scenarios almost always result in compromises that have negative health effects.
We believe that it doesn’t have to be that way, but for a change to occur, homes need to be designed differently and builders need to be well-equipped to build new options.
???? Our Team
Before I explain more, let me introduce you to our team. We’re not the type of people you’d expect to be working in housing because of our backgrounds in healthcare, but we’re here to use our knowledge and experience to help the housing industry serve our typical clients & patients better.
Sarah Pruett, Tiffany Dill, Rebecca Langbein, and Meaghan Walls comprise our program team. Collectively, they have incredibly deep knowledge of how environmental design affects the many different ways that people perform everyday tasks, particularly when an impairment is present.
Sarah and Tiffany are Occupational Therapists, Rebecca is an Engineer & Occupational Therapist, and Meaghan is a Rehabilitation Engineer & Assistive Technology Professional. Each has a unique perspective about executive functioning, sensory processing, motor function, body mechanics, ergonomics, communication, and more for an extensive range of people.
We also have over 120 volunteers who have lived experience with disability. Their identities are private but they’re from all over the world and regularly provide feedback about our design work (more on that below).
Their personal and/or professional experience covers a range of impairments related to one or more of the following: upper and/or lower body strength, movement, and/or sensation, balance, vision, hearing, stamina and/or endurance, memory, learning and/or interpreting information, speaking or communicating, sensitivity to light, noise, smells, touch, and/or emotional/psychological wellness.
???? The Problem(s)
The lack of universal accessibility in the housing market is a problem with many variables, but let’s look at (1) supply, (2) demand, and (3) design:
There aren’t enough accessible homes in our housing stock to adequately meet the needs of the 26% of adults in the USA have some type of disability related to mobility, cognition, independent living, hearing, vision, and/or self-care. In other words, we’re not just talking about housing for people who use wheelchairs. Here are the numbers:
- Almost 140,000,000 housing units in the USA. (source: Census Bureau)
- Approximately 61,000,000 adults in the USA with a disability. (source: CDC)
- Less than 200,000 universally accessible housing units. (source: HUD)
Making matters worse, those numbers don’t account for friends & family. People with disabilities regularly have a difficult time visiting others who may not “need” access in their homes, affecting socialization and mental health.
The demand for universally accessible housing is inextricably linked to the supply. The available options are so few that the people who benefit [the most] from universal accessibility have simply gotten used to “getting by” with less than ideal living situations because that’s all that’s available.
Affordability is also a major factor here. Accessible design (whether universal or specialized) tends to be more costly than conventional design, which is a deterrent to both builders and buyers/renters. Statistically, households with at least one working-age adult with a disability have, on average:
- 37% LESS income than households without a member with a disability.
(Source: Cornell University)
- 28% MORE expenses than households without a member with a disability.
(Source: National Disability Institute)
Homes that are truly universally accessible AND affordable AND targeted toward mainstream buyers/renters are nearly impossible to find. The demand won’t increase without people knowing what’s possible in their local area (i.e., not just online) AND within financial reach.
Accessibility & affordability are rooted in design. The time, effort, and knowledge required to tackle universal access and mainstream affordability is costly. Consequently, most “accessible” homes are “custom designed” and thus are almost always costlier than a “typical” home.
In healthcare, no one expects one provider to know all of the ideal treatment options for any possible condition or diagnosis that a patient might have. This should be the same in housing, but it’s not. The result is that many design decisions often miss the mark for true universal accessibility.
???? Our Solution
Our assertion is that if we make home builders’ jobs as easy as possible by providing detailed construction documents for building new universally accessible homes with pre-selected finishes, then they’ll be more likely to utilize our work for the betterment of their communities and (businesses).
We focus on creating design plans for new construction, making those plans widely available, and providing support for implementing the design work.
Our team works collaboratively with licensed architects to design new homes that meet 3 goals:
- Universally Accessible: All areas of the home need to meet the functional needs of a wide variety of people as much as possible without being specialized for a specific demographic.
- Financially Accessible: A built and finished home should be purchasable or rentable by households making less than the area median income for a pre-selected region.
- Replicable: All design plans need to be able to be used for multiple homes in various locations.
This is a highly collaborative process that is much more time-intensive than if an architect works solo. We work really hard to minimize the possibility of someone experiencing the inability to use any part of a home. Involving multiple health professionals who have different perspectives and/or specializations is crucial to reduce biases about design choices.
To minimize the chance of exclusion even more, our Design Advisors validate all of our work throughout the design process to ensure that we don’t miss anything important. They represent the people who will benefit most from our work, so we don’t finalize any design plans without them.
The outcome of each of our projects is a set of construction documents that are as close to ready as possible for permitting and use. Note: we’re still working through how we’ll approach edits for specific building code requirements.
We’re forming a network of builders across the USA with exclusive access to our design work, so when people are looking for a universally accessible home in their area, they know who to go to.
There are nearly 400 defined regions across the USA with populations over 50,000. These are called Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) and cover the majority of the country. We want to have great relationships with a minimum of one home builder in each MSA who is well-equipped to build homes that are universally designed & financially accessible.
This network is the key to being able to address the widespread need for accessible housing.
Universal design, by definition, is usable by all people to the greatest extent possible. The “to the greatest extent possible” part implies that universal design may not meet every functional need. While our design plans are as functional as possible for as many people as possible, we recognize that there are some people who require specialized options.
For this reason, The Universal Design Project provides a support service to help builders and clients figure out what’s best for specific situations, including consultation about assistive technology.
So what? I already design UD homes.
UD is difficult to do without multiple perspectives on what’s accessible and what’s not. We use a highly collaborative process to minimize any chance of exclusion. No hard feelings if you’re not interested in co-designing with us.
Why are we a nonprofit?
Mostly because the collaborative design work described above in our solution is costly, well beyond what most people affected by disability can afford. The best way to fund this work is through the support of others. Our 501(c)(3) designation may also provide some exciting opportunities for funding construction, but we’re not at that point yet.
Do we do home modifications?
No. Modifying existing homes isn’t socially sustainable. Modifications are client-specific and rarely useful for the next owner/tenant when someone moves. Furthermore, modifications are often constrained by limited budgets and what’s possible with an existing structure. This results in compromises that have negative health effects.
Do we do custom projects?
No. We only do design work that can be used over and over throughout multiple communities. That said, we understand that some household situations require further assistive technology beyond what’s in our design plans, so we do provide support for individual needs.
Do we only co-design with architects?
Right now, yes. This is because some locations require a licensed architect’s involvement for permitting. Philosophically we can’t deem those locations less important than others if we’re trying to make a national impact.
What about state licensing requirements?
We understand that some states require a stamp from an architect licensed in that state for permitting. This is a hurdle that we’re working on a solution for, but we haven’t made any decisions yet. One consideration is hiring an in-house architect and pursuing licensing in each state needed. This is cost-prohibitive right now but it would also give us flexibility to make edits as needed for compliance with specific building codes without bugging you over and over.
Are our design plans free?
No. We can’t fully rely on donations to keep us in business, so we have to charge a license fee for use of our design plans. That said, design plans will be optimized for budget constraints so the fee isn’t a burden to include in the total costs of the build.
Wait, so who gets the money?
Income from license fees gets split between the organization and the architect. ????
???? Co-design with us
We’re looking for architects throughout the USA to each co-design a universally and financially accessible home with us. The objective is to create a library of construction documents for our network of home builders for them to use in communities across the USA.
How it works
- You design a home mostly like normal, but without any details about a specific build site and by participating in our collaborative process.
- You lean on our team for help with problem-solving and decision-making for accessibility.
- We publish the design plans in a marketplace for use by our network of home builders.
- Builders use our work to create more accessible and affordable housing options in their communities.
The Universal Design Project is a remote organization, allowing this to occur from any location. Interested? Please email me for details at [email protected].