Universal Design: Universally Helpful

Written by Kathy Weiss

Photos by Reggie Morrow

When George and Lois Eichacker shopped condos last year in preparation for their move to Iowa City from Fort Madison, they were on a mission to find the right location.

They wanted to be close to University of Iowa doctors and dentists, Hawkeye football games and Hancher activities. They wanted convenient access to I-80 and the Cedar Rapids airport for easy travel to Des Moines and family living outside of Iowa. They also longed for a natural setting with mature trees and wildlife like they enjoyed in southern Iowa.

The couple’s purchase of a condo at Elk Run across from the Elks Club golf course in Iowa City’s Peninsula neighborhood met all of their criteria. Like other upscale condominiums, it’s spacious and modern with premium amenities, yet with one distinctive element that sets it apart from others.

George and Lois enjoy an extra level of comfort, thanks to the universal design principles incorporated into the architectural plans. Perhaps most apparent is the one-level access — there are no steps to climb. The couple can drive into the underground garage and take an elevator up to their third floor condo.

Homes built using universal design concepts mean the home is barrier-free, yet aesthetically pleasing. The features make sense for people of all ages, whether you’re 40 or 70, and are not just for people with disabilities. Universal design caters to the needs of an aging population with features that are easier to use and access, such as wider doorways and hallways and no stairs to climb.

For the Eichackers, both in their 70s, the new condo meets their needs. Doorways are wider and doors are fitted with lever handles or they slide into the wall as pocket doors keeping pathways clear.  All wall light switches are the larger, flat rocker-style, which are easier to operate than traditional toggle switches. The master bathroom is outfitted with a low threshold shower tray for easier walk-in entry, along with double seats and reinforced walls strong enough to anchor grab bars, should they become necessary someday.

Lois would have appreciated these conveniences when she had knee surgery three years ago. “It would have been wonderful to have a place like this,” she acknowledges. “If one of us were incapacitated, we would still be able to move around.”

While neither of them needs the adaptive features now, she said universal design has several advantages. Citing the levered door handles in place of standard door knobs, Lois says, “If your arms are full, you are able to maneuver the door better.”

Underground parking is another nice perk, especially during an Iowa snowstorm, while the elevator saves them time in their comings and goings.
Although it didn’t drive their decision, “universal design was a clincher when they looked around at several other condos,” George commented.

The scenic views of the Elks Club golf course were another draw. “We like the landscape, the trees,” Lois added. “In winter, you can see the Iowa River.”

“There’s a rural feel to it,” observes her husband. “We see turkeys and raccoons. We had lots of wildlife at our home in Fort Madison, too.”

Lois described their move from a five bedroom, 3,000-square foot home in Fort Madison “with all of those lovely closets” to a condo with half the square footage as a challenge, while her husband called it a “major downsizing problem.” Nevertheless, they are fully embracing their new carefree, low maintenance lifestyle in a community they have always loved. 

“We both went to school here,” George noted, recalling how in the 1950s he hitchhiked back to campus after a visit home in Homestead. Their three children also attended the university, but now live out of state, hence the couple’s requirement to be near a major airport.

“Lois volunteers for many organizations in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids,” he adds, explaining their desire to be close to I-80. “We are both very active in the African American Museum in Cedar Rapids.”

For George, a retired bank president whose past community service included more than a dozen boards and committees, and Lois, a former community organizer with her own extensive career in public service, it’s time for a slower pace. An auction was held in Fort Madison to sell furnishings and Lois then sought the expertise of Katy Stutsman, an interior decorator at Surroundings in Iowa City, to make their new home comfortable.

“She helped us with the large open space, creating both dining room and living room areas,” Lois said.

With the move now behind them and their beautifully furnished condo now organized, life above the river should be all down hill from here.

• No-step entry, meaning no one needs to use stairs to get into the home or in any of the home’s main rooms.

• One-story living. Places to eat, bathrooms and sleeping area are all on one level, which is barrier free.

• Wide doorways. Doorways that are 32 to 36 inches wide let wheelchairs pass through. They also make it easy to move big things in and out of the house.

• Wide hallways. Hallways are 36 to 42 inches wide, allowing everyone and everything to move from room to room more easily.

• Extra floor space.

• Floors and bathtubs with non-slip surfaces.

• Handrails on steps.

• Grab bars in bathrooms, or walls and showers with enough support so bars can be installed later if needed.

• Thresholds that are flush with the floor to make it easy for a wheelchair to pass and to keep others from tripping.

• Lever door handles and rocker light switches. Overall, they’re easier to operate and work for everyone, from those with poor hand strength to those carrying an armload of packages.