Universal smart homes rely heavily on the concept of design to be livable for people of all ages and abilities. At their basis, these homes are meant to provide a healthy indoor environment in which residents and emergency servicemen alike can easily access all of the indoor spaces. As we advance into a more modern era, several types of technologies have emerged that can improve the effectiveness of universal home design. In his book, Universal Designed “Smart” Homes: for the 21st Century, Charles Schwab states that the purpose of a universal smart home is to “enhance Independent Living, while conserving and protecting our natural resources well into the 21st Century and beyond”. This concept is represented through four aspects of a home: mobility, utility, efficiency, and health. Technology, when installed mindfully and cohesively with other design aspects, can maximize the success of each aspect.
A key element of successful universal design is that the smart features are well integrated into the overall design. In terms of mobility, this means minimizing the use of wheelchair ramps, metal handrails, and high-friction flooring materials. Flooring made of non-slip, glare-free materials with high contrast edging and ‘ramp-free’ walkways with a 1:20 grade, eliminate the need for the aforementioned eyesores. In combination with practical mechanical lift systems for traveling between floors, technologies like Golden Technologies’ power chairs help improve residents’ mobility throughout their homes.
Technology can also improve residents’ ability to utilize all of the spaces and surfaces in their home. Strategically placed lights with rocker-type light switches make the process of entering a dark room much simpler. Sinks, shelves, closet rods, and drawers that can be adjusted from commonly specified heights to accessible heights as well as front-loaded, side-swing appliances (washing machines, ovens, etc.) contribute significantly to the universal home design goal of making homes ‘livable for people of all ages and abilities’. While advanced technologies that carry out tasks for residents are still in development, several robots exist today that can do things from cleaning the floors to mowing the lawn.
Elderly and disabled populations have lower median incomes than the average. This means that these people have less disposable income in general, and would benefit specifically from being able to save money on their utilities. There are four channels through which homes can be made more efficient and utility costs can be cut. The first, Energy Star, is a national rating system for appliances. An Energy Star certified home can expect to save about 20% annually on utility bills. Secondly, homes can be made physically more energy efficient by installing an in-floor radiant heating system or by using organizations like LEAP to stop air leaks. The third channel, utilizes alternative forms of energy production such as solar and geothermal. Lastly, residents can save money on their utilities by taking steps to conserve water using technologies like water pedals, automatic water shut offs/sensors, faucet & shower head aerators, low-flow toilets, and point-of-use water heaters.
Unfortunately, the most vulnerable populations are the ones who have the most trouble accessing the health care that they need in a reasonable amount of time. Technology can be used to not only provide this population with the help it needs quickly, but can also help prevent accidents in the first place. In-home telehealth and remote monitoring technologies are becoming increasingly more widely used. In the case of emergencies, in conjunction with security systems, voice-activated computer systems can be installed that are directly connected to the police, fire, and EMS. By pairing light indicators with garbage disposal, smoke detectors, and carbon monoxide detectors, accidents are less likely to occur. Additionally, new home construction should include a passive radon emissions pipe as well as materials, like paints, sealants, and adhesives, with low VOCs.
While smart home designs are hugely beneficial, technologies, from movable shelves to a robotic vacuum cleaner, are making the goal of a livable home for people of all ages and abilities more attainable. Though costly, technology is constantly improving and becoming more cost effective. By aiding a population’s ability to age-in-place and live independently with disabilities, families can save several thousand dollars on live-in nurses, nursing homes, and hospital visits. These technologies result in increased individual freedoms, which make the up-front costs worth the long term investment
Guest Contributor: Tara Osborne