The AARP has a long history of helping improve quality of life and independence for older people through housing design. In 1961, its founder, Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, supervised the creation of a universal design demonstration house in Washington, D.C. Now marking its 50th anniversary, AARP has opened a newly redesigned house in Washington, D.C.—using the same basic principles as the 1961 House of Freedom—that will provide six low-income senior citizens with a safe, comfortable, and user-friendly home incorporating universal design features.

The Andrus House project was a partnership between the Washington, D.C. chapter of AARP (AARP DC) and several organizations, including Christian Communities Group Homes, which will operate the residence. Initially, AARP consulted with Marius Radulescu, of SK&I Architectural Design Group, Bethesda, Md., on its goals and plans for the renovation. Radulescu helped the organization review its wish list of features and details, set priorities, and estimate expenses.

"The goal was to make the house livable," he says. "It was very unsuitable for anyone with disabilities. The bathrooms were not accessible, the doors were too narrow, the kitchen was inadequate, and there was no bathroom in the basement area." The house also had no air conditioning, no insulation, and no laundry room; it needed new windows, had to be brought up to code, and required asbestos abatement.

Several American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) Freedom by Design university chapter leaders had the opportunity to walk through the empty house and analyze areas for improvement before AARP's design process got under way. After holding design charrettes, the students passed on their ideas for improvement to AARP. The University of Maryland's AIAS Freedom by Design chapter contributed more extensive assistance by redesigning the house's original garage, which would not be used by the senior residents, into a spacious bedroom, bathroom, and laundry room.

New to the concept of universal design, the students consulted with architect Michael Graves, FAIA, who currently uses a wheelchair. "We went to his office and he gave a good lecture on the technical aspects of [universal design], as well as the aesthetics and what it means to live in a space for those who are handicapped," says U.Md. chapter leader Jason Langford. Graves also invited the team to his own house, making sure they noticed the scars on its walls from his wheelchair.

The Andrus House now has six bedrooms, two of which are fully wheelchair-accessible, and has been improved with an open-plan kitchen and living room area and wider doorways, providing greater maneuverability. Visibility in the kitchen's work areas has been improved with the addition of task lighting. Countertops of varying heights and pull-out cabinetry shelves extend access. Wood floors without threshold barriers provide better accessibility throughout the first floor for those in wheelchairs or with limited mobility. Light switches are set lower and electrical outlets are set higher to eliminate the need for reaching and bending. A wheelchair-accessible entrance was created with a ramp at the side of the house. AARP intends to landscape the house's yard as well to provide accessible outdoor living space.

Though universal design is frequently used in houses targeted to those with physical impairments and other accessibility needs, the principles of universal design are intended to benefit any person, regardless of age or physical ability. "Part of what we're trying to do is show people things they can do if they're either building a new house or renovating that will make their homes safer and more comfortable," points out Mimi Castaldi, director of AARP DC.