Show houses, with their built-in "wow" factor, often elicit compliments from visitors. But none were more gratifying for designer Anna Marie Hendry, of Classic Interiors by Anna Marie, than the comments she heard at the Livable Lifetime Show House staged in suburban Atlanta earlier this year and sponsored by Sherwin-Williams. A first-of-its-kind showcase for universal design, the house drew a diverse crowd, including many people with physical disabilities.
She remembers one visitor, a young man in a wheelchair, who spent a long time on the upstairs balcony overlooking the living room Hendry had designed. Hendry was surprised at how easy it was to incorporate accessibility features without compromising design.
"[He] enjoyed the space for about an hour," she recalls. "At the end, he said, 'It's been years since I've been to the second story of anyone's home.'"
Making spaces accessible to all is the goal of universal design, a movement that is gaining momentum as baby boomers enter their retirement years hoping to "age in place" rather than be forced to enter nursing homes or assisted-living facilities.
"More than 80 percent of people over 50 want to live in their homes as long as possible, but most homes are built for able-bodied men," says Sandra McGowen, owner of McGowen Interiors and co-founder of the Universal Design Alliance, which presented the Livable Lifetime house. Building in universal design features is much less expensive than retrofitting them later, she notes.
The Livable Lifetime home was the first in the nation to marry universal design with professional interior design. "Most designer show houses are strictly for show," Hendry notes, while other examples of universal design have emphasized only accessibility features.
"Ours was unique in that we treated it just like a show house and used professional designers," McGowen says. "We wanted to show that universal design can be beautiful and functional, not institutional. We wanted to take away the 'handicapped' stigma. It's just good design, for everyone."