NEWARK — In 1998, Rosemarie Rossetti returned home from Grant Medical Center after a life-altering accident to the jarring realization that she could barely get in the front door.
Her husband, Mark Leder, had pushed her up their home’s newly built access ramp and through the doorway onto the carpet, where the wheelchair wouldn’t budge.
In addition to coping with the shock of being paralyzed from the waist down — a 3.5-ton tree fell on Rossetti as she was biking with her husband near Granville — Rossetti began to realize she’d have to deal with countless smaller hurdles from tasks she’d always performed with ease: moving through doorways, reaching glasses in a kitchen cupboard or just getting into the bathroom, much less using it.
“The only room I could be in was the kitchen,” Rossetti said, because its floor had no carpet.
During the next several years, Rossetti and her husband threw their efforts into finding a home that would be suitable to Rossetti’s condition. Despite a number of setbacks along the way, the couple became crusaders for the concepts of universal design and sustainability — not just for individuals with physical limitations, but for everyone.
The Universal Design Living Laboratory, 6141 Clark State Road, Columbus, slated to open sometime this spring as a residence for Rosemarie and Mark as well as a model for the general public, is the picture of a user-friendly home. The couple worked with architects to plan it that way.
From the curbless showers with dual shower heads and a built-in seat to the elevator to the basement, the 3,500 square foot house has been designed to showcase concepts that can be applicable in large and small ways for people looking to grow old in their homes — and to any homeowner, whether or not they realize it.
“We instinctively use universal design in almost all designs,” said Travis Ketron, president of Ketron Custom Builders in Granville.
Ketron is a Certified Aging-in-Place specialist, meaning he “has been trained in the unique needs of the older adult population, aging in place home modifications, common remodeling projects and solutions to common barriers,” according to the specifications of the National Association of Home Builders.
But he prefers the designation “universal design” to “aging in place,” mostly because the concepts can be applied to anyone — and not many customers like to think about aging.
Examples include lever fixtures on sinks instead of knobs that twist, or lights that can turn on and off with a nudge of the elbow instead of the motion required to flip a switch.
“Some of the things that are appealing to everybody are universal design,” he said.
Bryce Jacob, vice president of Dave Fox Design Build Remodelers, uses automobiles as an example.
Features such as automatic windows have become standard — and also happen to be easier to use than their dated window-crank counterparts.
The same goes for universal design features such as curbless showers and open floor plans that are aesthetically pleasing, allow for abundant natural light and visibility, and also are more easily navigable for everyone.
No longer are kitchens merely “business central,” Jacob said, as in the past when meals were exclusively prepared there and then delivered to the dining room.
Instead, they’re a gathering place, and remodels as well as new builds in years to come will reflect that, Jacob said.
“What they have is joined space,” he said.
As the baby boomer generation continues to age and plan for the future, many individuals — according to a 2005 AARP survey, almost 90 percent of adults 50 and older — are opting to stay in their homes as long as possible.
That means making accommodations that will facilitate movement, everyday activities and overall independence.
Popular features to accomplish this include first-floor master bedrooms, bathrooms and laundry, abundant natural and artificial lighting, open floor plans and handrails and grab bars — or accommodations for them to be placed in strategic locations in the future.
“It’s inclusive design. It’s good design. It’s looking at not only the house and the space,” Rossetti said, “but also everything that goes into it.”
Her favorite features of her new dwelling place include the accessible tub and shower in the bathroom and a steam table in the kitchen — which, incidentally, boasts four counter heights and knee space under the cooktop, whose controls are in the front where Rossetti can reach them.
“With a name like Rossetti, there’s gonna be some spaghetti cooked in there,” she said.
Jacob said varying counter heights also can help meet the needs of family members of different height and stature.
As a cooking fan who is friends with people almost a foot taller than him, Jacob knows the frustration of trying to cook in a home whose countertops have been designed to accommodate a 6-foot-7 resident.
Varying counter heights make it possible for residents of all ages and stages in life to function in the kitchen enjoyably — a key tenet of universal design.
“It’s putting thought into design so that it accommodates the user of the space,” he said.
When is a good time to think about universal design? There’s no single answer, but it doesn’t hurt to consider during your next (or even first) home purchase or remodeling project, no matter how small.
Ketron asks some customers doing bathroom remodels if they would like blocking installed behind their walls in case they decide in the future that they’d like a grab bar there — even if they’re not ready to consider the possibility right now.
Lever handles on doors and plumbing fixtures already are working their way into mainstream building, as are open floor plans.
Adding features such as non-slip flooring and easy-to-clean surfaces — as opposed to, for example, shower tiles with grout that tend to collect mold — are smaller ways universal design can be incorporated into a home without making changes to its structure.
“Product selection is a big part of it,” Ketron said.
In the long run, incorporating universal design into a house is something that can be done gradually and intuitively as residents consider their intentions for the future. It doesn’t need to be a large-scale project — although it can be.
Chances are, whether it’s a light switch, door knob or showerhead, something in your home already has been made with universal design in mind.
“It’s a lot of little things that people don’t think about,” Ketron said.