Sustainable, Visitable, and Universal by Design

“Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.” Frank Gehry

Universal design and “visitability” are practical and sustainable principles and practices that enable persons of all abilities to live independently in our changing world.  These approaches are particularly important given the dramatic demographic and environmental changes of this century. Life expectancy is continuing to rise and the age distribution of the population in the United States is steadily growing older. Non-renewable resources and open space are dwindling.  Extreme weather that used to occur every hundred years is increasing in frequency and taking a heavy toll on public health and on the health of our planet.

By applying the principles of universal design and visitability, we can do much to improve our quality of life, minimize our environmental footprint, and make our homes and communities more resilient.

This post looks more closely at the principles of universal design and visitability; the demographic and environmental challenges that can be addressed through their implementation; and steps that have been taken to promote sustainable and independent spaces and places. It also includes examples from the U.S. EPA Awards Program, Building Healthy Communities for Active Aging (BHCAA), presented between 2006 and 2001 to 21 communities, to illustrate what can be done and has been done to promote independence and environmentally sound living places.

What are Universal Design and Visitability?
Universal design considers the strength, grip, and size of the inhabitants. But it is not only the disabled who benefit from universal design—the young and old also share the need of having structures within reach and easy to use. The child turning on a light switch, the elder with arthritis opening a door, and a person in a wheelchair moving about in a home all benefit from universal design.  It’s not a new concept. In 1961, the first accessibility standard, “Making Buildings Accessible to and Usable by the Physically Handicapped,”[1] was issued by what today is known as American National Standards Institute, or ANSI. Over the next decade, it was adopted by a number of local and state governments.

Another important design concept that enables people to live independently and visit friends is visitability. Eleanor Smith, who recently retired from the organization she founded, Concrete Change, defines visitability as, “a movement to change home construction practices so that virtually all new homes offer a few specific features making the home easier for mobility-impaired people to live in and visit.”

To make standards clear enough to affect widespread policy, the visitability movement focuses on a short list of features that most directly impact the quality of life. These include physical features such as at least one zero-step entrance approached by an accessible route on a firm surface no steeper than 1:12, proceeding from a driveway or public sidewalk; 32 inches or more passage space through doors; and at least one half-bath on the main floor.

In illustrating such features, she describes how people are affected when they are left out, which cause, “daily drudgery; unsafe living conditions; social isolation; and forced institutionalization.” The good news is that incorporating the short list of visitability features  costs far less and is better for the environment if included in original building construction, avoiding barriers that negatively impact quality of life. A report published in the Journal of the American Planning Association found that during the lifetime of a house built in 2000, there is more than a 60% chance that it will be occupied by a resident with a long-term, severe mobility impairment.[2]

Smith uses the analogy of seat belts to illustrate the importance and relevance of incorporating visitability features when building residential structures. Seat belts are universal components found in every car because we don’t know which car will end up in an accident. Visitability is just as important for safely moving about in residential homes. One does not know when a temporary or permanent disability will occur. Recovering from an operation, a broken leg, or the birth of a child can be less burdensome in a home with visitability features. Moreover, a zero-step entrance is important for delivery workers or movers handling heavy and large pieces of furniture or appliances.

While spelling out design specifications is crucial, Smith says, “The spirit of inclusivity gives life to the specs.” Constructing barrier-free homes is the moral choice because it easy to, “create access in the great majority of new homes by not building major barriers that take a human toll on so many. Having the opportunity to be included and able to come to the party depends on the design.”[3]

Charlotte, North Carolina, is one community that is applying these ideas. By integrating the principles of smart growth and active aging in its implementation of policies and practices, it is enhancing the quality of life for older adults. In 2005, Mecklenburg County adopted the Status of Seniors Initiative, which is a comprehensive set of recommendations to make Mecklenburg County more age-friendly by making improvements to the built environment. Over the past five years, Charlotte has used this adopted policy to organize and guide growth and development for the city. New growth has been concentrated in several key corridors and activity centers that have created higher densities, mixed-use developments, and a more walkable community.

More than 5,000 new housing units have been constructed. Sixteen miles of greenways, 88 miles of bike facilities, and 106 miles of sidewalks have been completed. By retrofitting dozens of streets and adding accessible ramps at intersections, the City has made improvements for pedestrians of all ages and abilities. Many communities look to Charlotte as a model for development that includes its centers, corridors, and wedges (growth strategy), Transportation Action Plan (policies and programs), and Urban Street Design Guidelines (complete streets guide).  Charlotte incorporated senior-friendly design into street improvements, including increasing the size of its signage to cater to older drivers. Charlotte has also increased the number of crossing medians, provided longer and more audible crossing-area alerts, and continues to provide for pedestrian safety measures in project implementation. By focusing on the future of integrating transportation and land use, Charlotte will become a more sustainable, mixed-use city with a sense of community where elders can thrive. Charlotte, NC was recognized for its efforts to plan for the aging of its population and received the Award for Building Healthy Communities for Active Aging Achievement Award (BHCAA)  in 2010.

The BHCAA award represents a successful effort to encourage the adoption of smart growth policies and active aging practices. Communities are recognizing that growing smart ensures that existing resources are used efficiently and that open space and important habitats are preserved. And they understand that having a range of housing options makes it possible for older Americans to find a safe and affordable home. Older adults prefer to have the option to age in place and within their communities. Transportation and mobility options are also important and espoused in smart growth principles.

Demographic Trends
If the baby on the cover of the May 2013 issue of National Geographic really does live to be 120 years old, what will her housing needs be throughout her lifetime? How can design assist persons of all ages and abilities to live independently throughout the course of their lives?  Are there other sustainable factors that might be incorporated into a building’s structure that will make it timeless and guarantee a long life for both its inhabitants and the building itself?  Should centenarians have the option to remain living in a community-based home?

A number of communities are responding positively by planning  for the demographic change occurring in their communities. The Atlanta Regional Council of Governments (ARC) received one of the first BHCAA achievement awards for their having facilitated zoning policy changes and the development of 30 senior housing developments located close to services and connected to existing neighborhoods. With more than 90% of Atlanta’s elders relying on cars for transportation, ARC took steps to decrease auto dependency by promoting ride sharing through its six voucher programs and worked to improve bus stops and routes. These efforts increased the quality of life for elders and also benefit the environment. To encourage healthy lifestyles, ARC partners converted traditional senior centers to wellness centers, emphasizing physical activity and social interaction. Through community involvement, ARC listened to the needs of older adults and integrated age-appropriate features into parks, trails, and pedestrian paths. They also conducted sidewalk audits to ensure that local plans incorporated changes that would better serve older adults.

Half Moon Bay Senior Campus activities in San Mateo, CA. Image courtesy of author.

Another example is BHCAA award-winner San Mateo County, California. The county has a  growing aging population, but limited affordable housing and supportive services. To address this gap, a collaborative group of local non-profits teamed with the county to develop the Half Moon Bay Senior Campus Plan—an integrated continuum of care for the county’s older adults.  The plan successfully integrates more than 250 units of affordable housing with a network of pedestrian walkways and open space intended for structured and unstructured activities. Based on evidence of reduced rates of car ownership among low-income elders, planners can limit the construction of parking facilities and reduce development costs and subsequent motor vehicle use. The network of pedestrian paths and open space encourages an active lifestyle with minimal interference from traffic. A special feature is raised pavement where paths intersect streets, signaling motorists to yield to pedestrians. The new housing project will be LEED- certified, a requirement that California has for funding of public housing projects. California has a number of counties that have incorporated the need to address climate change in their master plans.

Climate Change and Extreme Weather Trends
Planning for the future demographic changes also requires recognizing the changing climate and severe weather trends that are happening worldwide and in the U.S.   According to a report from The Lancet, “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century. Effects of climate change on health will affect most populations in the next decades and put the lives and well-being of billions of people at increased risk.”[4] Greenhouse gases are the primary driver of climate change. Greenhouse gases can lead to more frequent and severe heat waves as well as increases in ground-level ozone pollution, threatening the health and well-being of persons of all ages, especially the young and the old. Do Universal design and visitability reduce construction waste and help save energy by requiring less retro-fitting of inaccessible buildings?

In January 2013, the Global Climate Change Research program released its draft for public comment, The National Climate Assessment, which described that climate change is already happening and that the intensity and frequency of a number of weather events such as heat waves, heavy rains, floods or droughts are already occurring. The draft report also states, “Planning and managing based on the climate of the last century means that tolerances of some infrastructure and species will be exceeded. For example, building codes and landscaping ordinances will likely need to be updated not only for energy efficiency, but also to conserve water supplies, protect against insects that spread disease, reduce susceptibility to heat stress, and improve protection against extreme events.”[5]

The worst natural disasters in the U.S., with respect to deaths and destruction, were caused by hurricanes Sandy (2012), Katrina (2005), and Rita (2005).  “In 2011 and 2012 alone, the United States experienced 25 floods, storms, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires that each caused at least $1 billion in damages.  Combined these extreme weather events were responsible for 1,107 fatalities and up to $188 billion in economic damages. This adds up to $400 per household per year.”[6]

In each of these disasters elders suffered greatly. The important question to ask ourselves now is if there are better ways to plan, which will enable us to be prepared for what our country will be facing with the aging of our population and need to better adapt to climate change?

Sustainable by Design
Building construction activities account for 60% of the raw materials (natural resources) used in the entire U.S. economy, with food and fuel making up the other 40%. Each year, nearly 170 million tons of building construction, renovation, and demolition wastes account for nearly 60% of the nation’s non-industrial, non-hazardous solid waste generation. Furthermore, 20% of all energy used in the U.S is from residential buildings. The good news is that we can take steps to reduce our housing ecological footprint by reducing our energy use and reducing carbon dioxide emissions. We can also reduce our water use and better manage our water resources.

Between 1950 and 2000, the U.S. population nearly doubled and during that same period, demand for water more than tripled. Household members use more water than occupants of other types of buildings. Simple strategies such as upgrading faucets and fixtures as well as changing landscaping and maintenance routines can reduce and preserve our water resources. There are many opportunities to incorporate green practices into building and construction— from the materials used to water and energy conservation—which if incorporated during initial building construction, in addition to the inclusion of visitability features, will result in energy-efficient, elder-friendly homes. Knowing these needs and realities ahead of time and addressing them at the planning and implementation phases will make durable, resilient structures for the young and the old that are beneficial to the environment.
Environmentally preferred materials and other information on being a green builder can be found on EPA’s green homes website at

Public Policy and Climate Change Resilience
A National Resources Defense Council released a report this May entitled, “Who Pays for Climate Change? U.S. Taxpayers Outspend Private Insurers Three-to-One to Cover Disruption Costs.” According to the report, “When federal spending on last year’s droughts, storms, floods, and forest fires are added up, the U.S. Climate Disruption Budget was nearly $100 billion, equivalent to 16% of total non-defense discretionary spending in the federal budget—larger than any official spending category.” [7] The report also highlights the shift from private insurers to taxpayers, which began when insurance companies incurred a $72-billion bill after Hurricane Katrina, and it has continued to increase.

Public Policy and Visitability
Since 1999, 14 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands have enacted some form of public policy mandating or encouraging visitability, basic home access, and basic home design or universal access—often taking the form of a voluntary tax credit or mandatory requirement if public funds are used for constructing housing or rental units. Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Virginia introduced bills this year that are pending in respective legislatures.[8]

Pima County, Arizona, embraced visitability early on as part of an Inclusive Home Design Ordinance in 2002.  St. Louis County, Missouri adopted an ordinance the following year.  At the municipal level, a number of communities have adopted ordinances that tied public funds to visitability requirements, including San Antonio, Texas and Naperville, Ilinois.

In June 2005, the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution entitled Visitability Opportunities for People with Disabilities. At that time, a number of municipalities and three states had adopted visitability standards in their building codes, including Chicago, Naperville, Bolingbrook, and Urbana in Illinois, Atlanta, Georgia, and Pima County, Arizona and states Vermont, Texas, and Kansas.[9]

Universal design and visitability have sustainable properties whose time has come. It is imperative for us to plan and adapt to the future population’s demographic diversity and the expected increase in intensity and frequency of storms, floods, droughts, and heat waves that accompany climate change. Retirees with diverse backgrounds could contribute to a check list for building for all ages. Retired architects may also provide thoughtful insight into building for the long run instead of planning for retrofitting when the original design no longer benefits the user and becomes a barrier. We have much to draw from with our growing resource of retirees and senior entrepreneurs, with their experience, ingenuity, and wisdom. Sustainable design can be the fabric and environment for our future lives if we listen to the people and world around us.

“I never design a building before I’ve seen the site and met the people who will be using it.” Frank Lloyd Wright



Kathy Sykes

Kathy Sykes serves at the U.S. EPA as Senior Advisor for Aging and Sustainability and a fellow with the Gerontological Society of America.  Previously she held senior positions with the U.S. Special Committee on Aging, Congressman Obey, and NIOSH. She received a master’s degree in Public Policy and Administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

1. retrieved on May 14, 2013.
2. Smith, Stanley K., Rayer, Stefan and Smith, Eleanor A. (2008) ‘Aging and Disability: Implications for the Housing Industry and Housing Policy in the United States’, Journal of the American Planning Association, 74:3, 289 — 306
3. retrieved on May 14, 2013.
4. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(09)60935-1
6. Ibid
7. retrieved on May 20, 2013
8. Local and State Legislation: Visitability. Complied by Doug Farquhar, J.D., The National Conference of State Legislatures retrieved on May 17, 2013
9. Ibid

Featured image courtesy of Engage, Inc.

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Posted in: Affordable Housing, Civic Leaders + Government, Community Engagement, Creative Placemaking, Design for Aging, Design Leadership, Economic Development, Health + Wellness, Infrastructure, Print, Sustainability, Technology, Transportation

The American Architectural Foundation has been dedicated to advancing the role of architecture and design in American society since its founding in 1943 by the American Institute of Architects.

In its 75 years in existence the Foundation’s work has taken many forms — from educational programming and exhibitions in its early years to large-scale design initiatives and programs —all of which serve to create a rich legacy.

As the managing partner of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design for twenty years, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the United States Conference of Mayors, the Foundation helped move the needle on design and cities. And, through its other signature programs like Save America’s Treasures in partnership with National Parks Service, the Sustainable Cities Design Academy, and Design for Learning, the Foundation has provided critical design leadership training and technical assistance to hundreds of elected officials, education leaders, business leaders, and other key decision makers in the design process.

In recent years, cities and civic leaders have embraced design and design thinking in a way that could not have been imagined when the Foundation begin its work back in 1943 — and AAF’s role in this transformation is a source of great pride for the Foundation. With this increased interest in the role of design in shaping our cities came a proliferation of new organizations to support and facilitate this cultural shift. These advances in the role of design in American society and changes in the nonprofit design sector, coupled with the departure of the organization’s longest-serving CEO, prompted the Foundation’s Board to embark on an intensive and lengthy process to examine the ongoing role and work of the Foundation.

As the Board of Regents reflected on the positive changes of the cultural value of design, the accomplishments of the Foundation, and how the legacy of the Foundation’s work is being carried out by its former staff in new roles and organizations across the country, they reached the conclusion that the American Architectural Foundation had accomplished what it set out to do. As a result, the Foundation began to complete its remaining programs and wind down its operations in the Summer of 2018 and the organization’s endowments have been distributed to allied organizations. The Foundation’s research and reports will remain available on its website as a resource to the field.

The Foundation’s work would not have been possible without the incredible talents of its many staff over the decades, the generous support of its funders, and the tireless dedication of its civic & design partners across the country. The Board remains deeply proud of the significant contributions Foundation has made in its 75-year history and would like to acknowledge that this would not have been possible without the efforts, dedication, and support from so many of you.