- Truth – This is why we do what we do.
- Assertions – The actions we believe are needed for systemic change.
- Alternatives – What happens if this doesn’t work?
- People – Who is on our team & who we need.
- Money – The fuel for our work.
- Our Ask – Because it takes a village.
This is why we do what we do.
The social need
Our communities are in dire need of greater accessibility and more affordability in housing. This can be discovered anecdotally by talking with individuals and families affected by disability, but here are some important points:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that 26% of adults in the USA have some type of disability. This includes impairments related to mobility, cognition, independent living, hearing, vision, and/or self-care.
- The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard has identified that only 1.0% percent of the national housing stock offers 5 basic universal design features.
- Our collaboration with The Kelsey has reinforced our assertion that there are hundreds of universal design features that make a home as usable as possible by as many people as possible. Thus, even the 1.0% of homes that only include five basic universal design features are inadequate for most households affected by disability.
- Research from Cornell University has identified that households with at least one working-age adult with a disability have an average of 37% less annual income than households without a disability (national basis, using 2018 data).
- The Joint Center for Housing Studies has also identified that nearly one-third of American households are paying more than 30% of their income for housing, with half of those households paying more than 50% of their income for housing.
- Our research has found that the lack of accessible homes and/or the unaffordability/unattainability of an ideal home profoundly affects one’s health, and is most often detrimental to mental health and relationships.
Homes that are truly universally accessible AND affordable AND targeted toward mainstream buyers/renters are nearly impossible to find. The USA needs a surplus of reasonably affordable housing options that support common everyday activities for people affected by disability. Modifying inaccessible homes isn’t sustainable, nor is treating each accessible build as a custom project.
We, as a country, need homes that are designed for universal accessibility and general affordability from the start. That’s what The Universal Design Project is working toward.
The difficulty of universal design
The outcome of any universal design process must be as much usability as possible for anyone. It’s relatively easy to figure out what’s ideal for a single individual. It’s complex and difficult to understand the functional needs of all possible users. There are two ways to address this:
- Try to learn everything about everyone and hope to get it right.
- Collaborate with specialists who have knowledge of executive functioning, sensory processing, motor function, body mechanics, ergonomics, communication, and more for an extensive range of people with various impairments.
Once the extent of “design that’s usable by all people” is understood, the second approach is the most logical. However, finding the right people to collaborate with and figuring out how to appropriately pay everyone involved is a challenge. This is especially important for households affected by disability, as they statistically have less income while typically having higher living expenses to support other basic needs.
What others are doing
We’re not the only organization working on addressing the shortage of accessible housing at a systems-level. Disability organizations, particularly Centers for Independent Living, are prominent advocates for more accessibility. Some organizations focus their efforts on policy to “force” the inclusion of basic accessible features in homes. A handful of organizations have developed voluntary certification programs for more “livable” homes (similar to the LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council). Other organizations focus on educating people about modifying and updating existing homes.
While we applaud their efforts, we’re taking a different approach…
The actions we believe are needed for systemic change.
Help create new options.
Our primary assertion is that the lack of universally accessible housing can be traced to design outcomes that are (1) not truly usable by all people and (2) not readily available for builders to easily build.
We believe that if we effectively address these two issues by creating new design options that are widely available, then we can catalyze a significant shift in the housing market toward more functional and universally accessible homes, even if it takes years. So how do we go about doing so? The following points explain…
Support home builders.
Home builders have the skills needed to bring design efforts to reality. If we make their job as easy as possible by providing detailed construction documents and instructions for building new universally accessible homes with all the right finishes, then they’ll be more likely to utilize our work for the betterment of their communities (and their businesses).
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’re working toward relationships with a minimum of one home builder in each MSA who is well-equipped to build homes that are universally designed & financially accessible by as many people as possible. This is the key to being able to address the widespread need for accessible housing in our country.
Our organization will help architects design new homes and then we will license the use of the design plans to home builders and their clients. Design plans will be optimized for construction budget constraints so the fee isn’t a burden to include in the total costs of the build.
Furthermore, we recognize that 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 possible functional need. Licensing the use of our design plans will include access to a support service to help clients and builders figure out what’s best for their specific situations, including consultation about additional assistive technology.
Collaborate with architects.
Architects have the skills needed to design a home down to the smallest detail. Collaboration with our health professionals will ensure that the choices they make will support a wide range of functional needs for generations while ensuring that those choices aren’t specialized (and thus not universally accessible).
To address a wide range of home styles, construction budgets, and region-specific needs, we will work with architects from different areas of the country to design plans for new universally accessible homes. We are not currently collaborating with design professionals other than architects because some states require design plans to be stamped by an architect before building permits are issued.
The collaboration between our organization and architects will result in complete sets of construction documents. Each architect will retain copyright and ownership of the design work but will give us unrestricted usage rights.
This is a volunteer opportunity for architects. There is obvious market value to this work, so we will make design plans available for sale through our network of home builders and split the revenue from usage-based license fees between our organization and the architect.
Prioritize experiential learning.
Demand for universally accessible homes will increase from in-person experiences more than any other form of learning. People need to identify benefits for themselves. It’s too easy to think that universal design is only useful for “those other” aging or disabled people.
In order for people to experience what a universally accessible home is like, nearby homes need to exist. We are working toward the construction of new universally accessible homes in each MSA.
While we would hope that owners of universally accessible homes would be willing to show off their properties, we can’t assume that will happen. For this reason, we are developing a demonstration home program for communities to work together to create places that people can visit and learn about what’s possible.
We all have strengths and we all have weaknesses. Universal design is arguably impossible to do really well without leaning on the strengths of others. The reason for this is because we all have different education, experiences, and biases about what matters and what doesn’t matter.
If the objective of universal design (as a process) is to create usability for all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation, then collaboration is the best option. It’s not easy, especially recognizing that “too many cooks in the kitchen” can result in poor outcomes.
Our collaborative process involves two key groups:
- A small team of specialists (health professionals) who have a deep understanding of a broad range of physical, sensory, and cognitive impairments and how an environment can affect the different ways everyday activities are performed.
- A large and diverse group of people with lived experience with specific impairments who can look at something and provide feedback about its usability.
Working together isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.
What happens if this doesn’t work?
A different business model
The home building industry and the architecture field may resist our efforts. We’ve worked hard to figure out ways to make it a win-win scenario for everyone involved, but if our assertions don’t pan out, we’re small and flexible enough to move away from external collaborations. The worst-case scenario is that we have to figure out how to raise enough money to hire in-house architects.
A more narrow focus
We’re taking a risk with a national focus because it’s tied to our financial targets; if we don’t hit the level of funding needed, we’ll likely shift our focus away from striving to make a national impact towards only working with a few hand-selected communities that can serve as case studies for others to learn from.
Who is on our team & who we need.
The core of our work is collaborative design. Our belief is that the missing piece of universal design processes is the involvement of health professionals who understand:
- A wide range of functional impairments.
- Various ways of performing everyday tasks when someone has an impairment or multiple impairments, especially if adaptations or specialized tools are needed.
- Ways that the design of a home environment can facilitate a well-balanced and fully functional lifestyle when impairments are involved.
Our goal is 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.
This team is comprised of people with advanced degrees and extensive experience with patients/clients in one or more of these fields: Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Rehabilitation Engineering, Environmental Gerontology, or other related disciplines.
To eliminate the problem of “too many cooks in the kitchen,” we only involve 3-4 health professionals in each collaborative design project. That said, the more health professionals we can afford, the more projects we can do.
A design advisor is someone who (1) has a unique understanding of disability/impairment because of personal or professional life experience, and (2) participates in our universal design process by giving feedback about projects in development.
This is an all-volunteer group that ensures that our design work is usable by as many people as possible, simply by each advisor answering “would this work for me?” None of our projects are finalized without their input.
There is no limit to the number of design advisors who can participate in our design projects. The more we have, the greater the reliability of our collaborative work.
On the business side, we need an executive director, program directors, a development team, a marketing team, and a customer support team. Some roles may overlap. Administrative needs will increase with growth and are crucial to the success of the organization.
Board of Directors
As a nonprofit organization, we are legally required to have a governing board that provides oversight, advice, and accountability. Board members have a variety of professional backgrounds and perspectives that are complementary to our work. Our board is unpaid and is not involved in day-to-day operations.
The fuel for our work.
How much we need
This is difficult to quantify because the more money we have to work with, the more impact we can make. Let’s look at the scale of our plan for a minute and then we’ll get back down to reality.
We could easily spend $150 million on the plan outlined above (without extravagance). This would mostly be spent on salaries, building demonstration homes and experiential learning programs in each of the nearly 400 MSAs across the country, and paying royalties to architects we work with.
But let’s be realistic. Right now we need to cover the part-time salaries of our team of health professionals and the operational costs as a business that works remotely. We can do that with a few hundred grand per year, though $2-3 million per year would comfortably fund the expenses listed below.
How we’ll spend it
Here are our projected general expense items with the costlier items at the top:
- Salaries & benefits
- Architect royalties
- Payroll taxes
- Legal & consulting fees
- Culture building
The above excludes the building expenses of our demonstration home program. We’d like to invest heavily in experiential education and/or subsidizing housing costs for people affected by disability if & when resources allow us to do so.
Our income will come from two primary sources:
- Donations & grants
- License fees
Currently, we are dependent on donations and grants. Once the business starts generating revenue from license fees, there will be a shift toward earned income keeping us moving forward.
Plans for sustainability
Long-term sustainability is important for our organization’s work to have a meaningful impact on communities across the country. If we average just two new construction projects in each MSA per year, income from license fees will sustain our efforts.
Because it takes a village.
Will you financially support us?
Hopefully, this helped you understand what we’re working on. It’s a complex systems-level problem and any level of financial support will help. If you’re willing and able to give monthly, that would be extremely helpful due to the long-term nature of our work.
The Universal Design Project is tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the IRS code and your donation is tax-deductible as allowed by law. Our EIN is 81-1119582.