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Universal Design’s Multigenerational, Multifamily Appeal


Millennials are renting in the U.S., but they are not alone.

The age distribution of renters across the U.S. has widened, as baby boomers downsize and millennials choose renting over homeownership. The former is quickly outpacing the latter. Between 2009 and 2015, the renting population of seniors 55 years old or over increased 28%

Multifamily owners are also noticing another trend. After moving in, retirees and young renters want to stay put. Almost 90% of Americans expressed a desire to age in place, according to a survey from the AARP Public Policy Institute. While this has long been a popular choice among homeowners, apartment buildings have also started to accommodate the widening demographic of renters flooding the market. 

Bachelors, new families and retirees want to occupy the same types of spaces, but those spaces are not always designed with all ages in mind. Buildings offering stainless steel appliances and a gym are valueless if tenants cannot use amenities comfortably. 

Long-term tenants create an opportunity for stable rent rolls. For multifamily owners looking to attract and retain baby boomer and millennial renters, universal design offers a way for city dwellers to age in place without sacrificing style, safety or convenience.

Universal design emerged in the U.S. in the late 1980s. While accessible design focuses on wheelchair access in places like entryways, bathrooms and transport systems as a legal requirement, universal design emphasizes solutions that work for everyone, regardless of capability. Educators from North Carolina State University College of Design would later develop seven basic principles for universal design: equitable use, flexibility, simplicity, perceptible information, tolerance for errors, low physical effort and appropriate size and space for use. 

Aging in place has become somewhat of a misnomer. Universal design does not solely benefit older residents. A lever door handle, for instance, allows for simplicity of use and requires little physical effort for a resident with arthritis or one with an armful of groceries. Touch-operated kitchen faucets add a luxury feel to an apartment unit while simplifying tasks like getting a glass of water.

Häfele's appliance lift

Supplier Multi-Housing Depot, which works with apartment owners to develop cutting-edge, quality design solutions, has observed the trend toward universal design within its network of manufacturers. One furniture partner, Häfele, offers products that allow residents to maintain their quality of life as they age.

LED lights in drawers, cabinets, closets and along backsplashes are attractive amenities and aid tenants with visibility as eyesight deteriorates. Some owners are also opting to install Häfele’s plinth lights, motion-activated lighting that can be installed near cabinet or door toe kicks and stay on for up to four minutes. 

Products like pull-down pantry units and counters that can adjust to a user’s height allow people of any size to comfortably make a meal. Häfele’s appliance lift reduces countertop clutter while placing mixers, blenders and other appliances at the most ergonomic height. The same pull-down technology can be used in bedrooms or other areas where vertical storage presents a functional design challenge. 

In bathrooms, safety features like grab bars do not have to be cold or sterile. Multifamily owners can install bars in a variety of colors or designs, and even use a special coating to keep them warm to the touch. 

In Pittsburgh, residents 65 and older represent 16.8% of the population, compared to 13% nationally. To accommodate age diversity, the city launched its Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh Action Plan, which focuses on improvements across themes of access, connection and innovation. While Pittsburgh’s plan emphasizes upgrades in public spaces, transportation and access to local retail and amenities, multifamily is its own piece of the universal design puzzle.

By creating open, safe and accessible places to live at the apartment unit level, universal design is making cities desirable for all ages.

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