Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
Sept. 20, 1996

Everyone's at home

by Michelle Johnson
There's no place like home when your 5-year-old can reach her own clothes in her closet, or your visiting 80-year-old grandfather can turn his wheelchair full circle in your bathroom. Mary Yearns says universal design makes a home livable through the life span.

Yearns, an associate professor of human development and family studies and extension housing specialist, defines universal design as features and products that can be used by people of all ages and abilities. She illustrates the idea with a 40-foot interactive exhibit she calls a "home for all ages."

Each year, Yearns and co-developer, Lois Warme, associate professor of art and design and extension specialist in interior design, take the "home for all ages" on the road. This is no simple task since the home requires a two-person moving crew, mechanics to connect plumbing and electricity, a cleaning and maintenance crew and countless volunteers for each trip. Since the home exhibit debuted in 1990, more than 500,000 people have toured the exhibit at events like the Iowa State Fair and the Iowa Farm Progress Show.

The exhibit features three rooms: a bathroom, a living area and a kitchen. Each room demonstrates special features and technology that improve accessibility, yet still look attractive.

The bathroom is designed with adequate turning space for someone using a wheelchair or walker. Its faucet is operated by an electronic eye. The vanity mirror is low enough to see from a seated position, yet high enough to see while standing. A stackable washer and dryer have controls on the front of the machines rather than the hard-to-reach back panels.

The display's living area doubles as a bedroom with a daybed for seating during the day and sleeping at night. A talking alarm clock tells the time at the touch of a button. A wireless remote controls 16 lights and appliances from inside or outside the home. Extended wands on the window's mini- blinds make them adjustable from a seated position.

The kitchen includes a lowered counter area with knee access underneath for seated work, roll-out drawers for under- counter storage and a pull-out shelf under the microwave oven.

Throughout the display are gadgets that make everyday tasks easier -- like a vegetable peeler with a large, rubber handle that allows for a better grip; a TV remote control with large, easy-to-read buttons; a toilet paper holder that can be loaded with one hand; and a wall-mounted shampoo and soap dispenser for the shower.

"The true challenge is helping people see that a home that incorporates universal design really looks no different than one that doesn't," Yearns said. "These practical ideas and features are ones that anyone could use."

A 'home for all ages' starts with:
  • At least one no-step entrance
  • Rooms to accommodate living, sleeping and bathing on the main level
  • Doorways that are at least 32 inches wide, preferably 36 inches
  • Main hallways that are at least 36 inches wide, 42 inches is better (the same is true for each room's traffic paths)
  • A 5-foot minimum turning circle for possible wheelchair use in each main level room

    While the best way to have a "home for all ages" is to build one from the ground up, Yearns said many features can be added to existing homes at minimal cost. For instance, putting U-shaped handles on cupboard doors so that they may be more easily opened is relatively inexpensive. So is putting both an upper and lower rod in a closet. Replacing faucet fixtures with single control levers to make them operable with one hand wouldn't be all that costly either, she said.

    "Older homes present more of a challenge," Yearns said. "Unfortunately, over one-third of Iowa's housing units were built before 1940. This makes incorporating universal design more difficult."

    Posing the biggest challenge in older homes is the bathroom, which typically was an afterthought since the home was built before indoor plumbing was the norm, she said. But even items like hand-held shower heads and zig-zagged grab bars are an improvement.

    "We all have within our circle of acquaintances someone who is elderly or disabled," Yearns said. "You want your home to be a 'visit-able' one for those friends and relatives. Most people would also like to be able to stay in their home throughout the life span. That is the idea behind a 'home for all ages.'"

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