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Curious Louis: How builders can use universal design to make homes everyone can use

6 North in the Central West End.
Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
6 North in the Central West End.

Jane Jones was overwhelmed when she first visited the 6 North Apartments building in the Central West End.

Built in 2004, it’s the nation’s first building constructed entirely under the universal design concept, which incorporates features that allow people with disabilities to live in the space. It can be defined as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design."

Jones, who is blind, moved there in 2012. She couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

“I would be miserable,” Jones said. “I wouldn’t have the freedom the independence that I have,” she said.

The 6 North building, at 4055 Laclede Ave., was developed by McCormack Baron Salazar on the urging of Colleen Starkloff, co-founder of the Starkloff Disability Institute which advocates for disability rights. Starkloff recently asked St. Louis Public Radio’s Curious Louis: “Would developers be open to incorporating Universal Design features in new living units? UD is different than Fair Housing requirements.”

To answer the question, we looked at the story of 6 North and how Starkloff engaged developers who initially were skeptical of the project. 

Starkloff wants to see more builders incorporate universal design in their plans. Those elements often include color-blocking carpet to help those with limited vision, rocker light switches, adjustable-height countertops, elevated kitchen appliances and curbless showers.

Other elements are lever handles, wide doors and halls for wheelchair users, sliding doors and tilt windows.

Starkloff has first-hand experience with the need for such features. To accommodate her late husband, Max Starkloff, who had quadriplegia and used a wheel chair, their home has universal design characteristics. Last year, when she broke her leg in ahorse-riding accident, she returned home in a wheelchair instead of heading to an assisted-care facility. She attributes her return to the design of her home.

“I was able to go home, and most people get stuck in nursing homes and some of them never go home,” Starkloff said. “And I think it’s a reality we need to be thinking about. None of us are impervious to any kind of injury or accident or difference.”

Many builders don’t incorporate universal design approaches into their regular projects for a number of reasons.  Jack Hambene, who was the developer for 6 North, said he and his colleagues at McCormack Baron Salazar initially had to be convinced to pursue a universal design-focused building. At first, they didn’t know much about the concept, a lack of knowledge still common among developers.

Universal Design favors levered handles over round handles for improved accessibility.
Credit Provided by Flickr.
Universal Design favors levered handles over round handles for improved accessibility.

After learning about the concept, the firm had a few hurdles to conquer — the same ones that continue to keep many designers from committing to universal design tenants. 

One problem is the stigma surrounding universal design features, given that the concept often is associated a need to comply with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. It requires new construction projects to incorporate features that allow people of various abilities to live there.   

Another is that many people don’t want apartments that make them appear differently abled. Other potential buyers may consider the features unnecessary. That makes it hard for builders to rent units built with universal design in mind. As a result, builders sometimes place such units in less compelling locations in their buildings.

“They tend to be in the worst locations and they’re the last units rented so you give them away or you have to discount the rents because people who aren’t disabled don’t want to live in them,” Hambene said. 

Developers also can find universal design construction costs prohibitive. Hambene said each unit cost about $6000 more to create than a typical unit.

But in the case of 6 North, eventually Starkloff convinced developers to go ahead with the project. They thought it would appeal to the regions aging population including baby boomers [link].

“We realized the demographics was all in favor: the aging populationof the United States, the number of 10s of millions of people who at any point in time their life have a disability,” Hambene said. “It’s a huge market that’s underserved.”

Since its completion, 6 North has been almost entirely occupied, Hambene said.

All units within 6 North are universal design compliant.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
All units within 6 North are universal design compliant.

Many of the residents, like Jones, appreciate the building’s features.

Ellie Cooper, 75, moved into the building a handful of years ago, downsizing from a three story house. She appreciates the bathroom’s curbless shower, handheld nozzle, and bench — all factors of universal design.

“I just think it makes me feel more normal, that I’m not an old lady who can’t do anything,” said Cooper, a retired high school teacher. “I wish a lot more contractors would think outside the box and think universal design. “

Peggy Morse, 80, a retired Mary Kay sales director who lives in 6 North, doesn’t need the design elements. But she greatly appreciates them.

“It’s wonderful because I’m in good health and don’t need to be in assisted living or anything like that,” Morse said. “But as I’m aging I feel like you know this is going to be perfect for me because everything I anticipate I may need, everything is already here.”

Follow Willis on Twitter: @WillisRArnold