Shopping for a new home in West Michigan?

You’ll see beautiful. You’ll see pastoral. You’ll see palatial. 

What you won’t see much of is “universal.”

A home sporting principles of Universal Design doesn’t look different from a typical home – from the inside or the outside.

  • A subtle graded entrance obliterates the need for an ugly wheelchair ramp appendage.
  • Doorways and hallways are 34 to 36 inches wide.
  • Electrical outlets are placed a little higher, and light switches and heating and cooling controls a little lower on the walls, so they could be easily accessed by someone sitting in a wheelchair.
  • Kitchens and bathrooms are bigger (a turning radius of at least 60 inches) and have counters with removable cabinets you could “roll” under.
  • Bathrooms have roll-in or low-lip showers and walls sturdy enough to support grab bars.

“Building codes today enforce the message that people with disabilities are going to be a functioning part of society and that public buildings must be designed to accommodate them,” said Jim Vander Meulen, vice president of VanderMeulen Builders in Holland, a family business started by his grandfather, Rhine, in 1924. “Unfortunately, most residential construction hasn’t caught up.”

The reason, Vander Meulen said, is because it costs more to construct a universally designed house.

There is no precise definition of Universal Design, so answering “How much more?” depends on what features are included. Vander Meulen won’t even make an educated guess.

The RL Mace Universal Design Institute in Chapel Hill, N.C. estimates Universal Design adds about $10,000 to the cost of most houses.

Vander Meulen became a convert to Universal Design principles during his college years, when he had a suite-mate who used a wheelchair after breaking his neck in a diving accident.

Vander Meulen wrote his master’s thesis on Universal Design in architecture at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, and used the knowledge to design a home for his college friend, who had it built in West Bend, Wisconsin.

And Vander Meulen designed his own home with two zero-step entries, and other Universal Design features.

The thing Vander Meulen wishes more people understood is that buying or building a home with Universal Design features costs significantly less than retrofitting those features into an existing home.

In short, enlarging kitchens, bathrooms and hallways runs big bucks – and usually requires a homeowner to “lose” a second bedroom.

“It makes sense to address these issues before construction,” Vander Meulen said, “but most people put it off until aging, an accident or disease makes them address it.  And then it’s going to cost them more to change it.”

As builders of custom homes, Vander Meulen said his family’s business might be more insulated from economic fluctuations than are companies that build houses on speculation. During the recession, most builders have been dealing with clients who are scrutinizing each line item and asking, “Do I need this now?”

While he understands the economic realities, he sees wisdom in owning houses that allow people to age in place.

Too often things like “too many stairs,” “too narrow hallways” and “too little space” to maneuver or transfer from a wheelchair force people out of their homes and into a nursing facility.

His father, Earl Vander Meulen, was one of those people.

Not long before Earl’s death from bone cancer in September 2012, he was transferred to a hospice facility largely because there was not sufficient room for family to care from him in the house he had built in the 1950s, Jim said.

Would you be willing to pay more for a house built according to Universal Design principles? Would your answer change if no current member of your household uses a wheelchair?