Tailgate: Mary Jo Peterson, Designer - Fine Homebuilding Article
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Tailgate: Mary Jo Peterson, Designer

For this kitchen and bath planning expert, universal design is just good, commonsense—and sustainable—practice.

What is universal design?

To be true universal design, a concept or product must be respectful of people’s differences—ability, understanding, size, age—and beautiful. It’s just good common sense, really, that we design products and spaces to support the lifestyles and needs of a home and its household members as they change in their lives. Pretty sustainable, if you think about it.

How did you get involved in universal design?

Through the back door. I wanted to do more than design kitchens and baths for the wealthy of Fairfield County, Connecticut. When my first husband died of cancer, I was looking for a cause. I had a desire to change the world in some small way or somehow make the world a better place for my efforts. A doctor-client-friend urged me to combine my interest in helping people with my love and talent in design and to design for “disabled people.”

I then had my “aha” moment. I realized that many of the things we were doing for a person who operated from a seated position were also great for shorter people, or that a raised dishwasher, which is easier for a seated person to approach and use, is also even more helpful to the standing person who doesn’t want to bend to use the dishwasher. This is universal design. It’s the design that you approach with appreciation for its beauty and integration in the space or product. Then at some point, you come to appreciate its added convenience and respect for your efforts to use it. 

Do you have to work hard to promote the concept of universal design?

At this point, many of the builders, developers, and architects who make up a big part of my business come looking for universal design. I have been working hard to plant this seed for over 20 years, so I see genuine progress, mainly driven by the age boom and the desire to capture that market.

Is it easier to sell universal design?

Yes. Do people still associate it with age or infirmity? Some do, unfortunately. The term is a placeholder so that we can focus on incorporating these principles as we design spaces or products and we can ask for these features when we shop and buy. In the future, perhaps there will be no term or label. It will just be automatic, part of all good design. Sort of invisible unless it’s missing.

Is universal design different from aging in place?

Aging in place typically refers to those of us who are advancing in the aging process. It is definitely a driver for universal design, but aging in place is only one aspect. Universal design refers to respect for and support of all of our differences.

Are builders paying attention?

Yes, the numbers are growing. Some get it right, and some promote it as options for specific access problems, which is not all that universal design is. This message can do more harm than good. A semicustom builder in the D.C. area has told me that they incorporate most universal-design features as their standard now, and it actually costs more to change away from things like a level, no-step entry because their crews are now so accustomed to doing it their standard way. Progress! 

Have you seen product manufacturers embrace universal design?

They are trying, and some are having success—some because they are getting it right and some because they are just incredibly persistent.

We seem to have reached a tipping point. As manufacturers recognize the boomer market with its changing needs, they want in. Cautiously, they are exploring and creating products, and then marketing them. I hope that their efforts will help to raise understanding, acceptance, and even desire for universal design. 

What will make homebuyers start demanding accessible homes?

I think education on all levels: to the manufacturers, the marketers, the design/build professionals, and the consumers. I also think this feeling of something to aspire to will help with consumers embracing universal design. The fact is that as we age, our abilities do change naturally, so we are coming to recognize the value of good universal design in supporting our changing needs and our life as we want to live it. In truth, universal design is increasingly being embraced by manufacturers, builders, and consumers at the same time, and we’ll have to see who emerges as the first or strongest contingent. 
Photo: courtesy of Laurie Klein
From Fine Homebuilding223 , pp. 106
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