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Builders, Developers and Universal Design #1

by Louis on August 21, 2007

Builders use market studies to define the expected buyers for their products. There is good reason. Product development takes time and costs money. Building is expensive. The risks are high.

Anyone investing time, money, effort and reputation on a product that takes so long from conception to market needs to feel secure that a buyer will be available when the product is ready. Typical factors are income range, age and lifestyle – like starter home, move up buyer, empty nester and active adult. The market study narrows the potential buyer for the product. Schools, shopping, medical services, transportation and other infrastructure issues add to the mix of features that attract buyers to products and locations.

Considering this, Universal Design advocates (I proudly confess to being one) have concentrated our new home efforts on 50+ home builders. That makes sense because 50+ shoppers often say they are purchasing their last home. These shoppers should recognize the additional value of Universal Design features to carry the purchaser through their years. I won’t hesitate to say that 50+ builders are adapting UD features at a more rapid rate. (not fast enough, but faster).

Focusing on 50+ builders is a reasonable strategy to attract early Universal Design adapters but it is counter to the intention and advantage of Universal Design. Universal Design products are useful to the largest numbers of people regardless of individual condition or ability and without special adaptation. That is the opposite of narrow market definition.

Does this mean 50+ builders should not adopt Universal Design? Does it mean starter home or move up builders should not employ Universal Design? No. It means that everyone should regardless of their niche.

Some builders investigate Universal Design by building a demonstration home. Centex Corporation did a well received and publicized demo home in Bristow, Virginia this year in conjunction with a community coalition. Many fine demo home examples are out there.

One of my current clients, Winchester Homes, is a division of Weyerhaeuser Corporation building in Maryland and Virginia whose tag line is ‘Your Home, Your Way’. They are a rare production builder dedicated to working with clients to customize, enlarge, and in other ways attend to individual client desires. Winchester folks have been active in our local visitability efforts: Design for Life Montgomery. Now they promise to be the first builders in our area to fully embrace the concept. I am impressed by their thorough and wholehearted grasp and plunge to Universal Design.

Winchester’s strategy is different. They are not doing a demo home. Under team leader Vince Mendel’s guidance we have studied features to include and developed criteria for adoption to Winchester’s Your Home, Your Way concept. Winchester’s approach is to make these features repeatable and profitable for selection and inclusion in all the homes Winchester builds.

The UD advocate’s strategy of targeting 50+ builders because it will provide more obvious value to their clients is exposed for its basic contradiction. Universal Design’s real value, to everyone – is more attractive than the niche approach.

Yet at this point all efforts to promote Universal Design are appreciated. There are many paths: visitability, easy living, education, model homes, builder adoption and others. The more fronts on which we operate the more people learn about and adopt Universal Design. Soon I hope we will look back and wonder what all the difficulty, frustration and hubbub was as Universal Design goes mainstream resulting in better products marketable to more people.

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