Living Lab an Example of Universal Design

If you don’t know about universal design, Rosemarie Rossetti is building a house to show you. Her Universal Design Living Laboratory will be a national demonstration home, open to the building community during construction and open to the public once it’s complete.

Rossetti has been in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down, since 1998 when an 80-foot tree fell on her during a bike ride on a calm and sunny day outside Columbus, OH. Rossetti was a professional speaker and communications consultant before the accident, but she now has a much more motivational, and compelling, story to tell. The goal of the UDLL is “to bring about awareness of the quality of indoor and outdoor lifestyle through universal design, green building, safety and healthy home construction practices to the public, construction and design industries,” the mission statement reads.

Rossetti led a seminar on universal design at the Hospitality Design Exposition & Conference in Las Vegas earlier this year. Her message to hospitality designers at HD: You can do better. “ADA is a minimum,” says Rossetti, “why don’t we want the maximum?”

“Universal design is human centered,” Rossetti explains. “It accommodates all people, of all ages and sizes. It’s not about meeting requirements.”


The Americans with Disabilities Act brought accessible design standards after it was signed into law in 1990. Updated guidelines had been under review since 2004 and on the verge of being mandated, but the Department of Justice withdrew those in January after the new administration took office. A DOJ official says the process for clearance will likely resume once some incoming DOJ officials are approved by the Senate.

Rossetti isn’t overly worried about the improved standards. She told an audience of approximately 40 designers at the HD seminar that hotels often fall short in accessible design, even in ADA-compliant rooms. She said there wasn’t one brand or segment of hotels better or worse than the other.

“Maybe there is a standard with ADA, but it’s not being followed very well,” she says. Her critique starts with the guestroom door, which is supposed to have at most five pounds of pressure, but she says it seems heavier and is hard to open and close. Carpets in public spaces and hallways are often too dense, or the padding underneath is, which challenges not only those in wheelchairs, but people with strollers or luggage carriers. In the guestroom, she says, furniture often needs moved to access temperature or lighting controls. Bathrooms need more thought in shower design—walk-ins are better for wheelchair transfers than a tub—and better placement of mirrors and vanity space.

Could, or even should, an entire hotel be built using universal design? Would rooms need to be larger, hallways widened and would more special (and expensive) products need ordered? Is that cost effective and realistic for a developer?

“My thought is if universal design is good for people of all ages and abilities, why shouldn’t it be used throughout the property?” Rossetti answers with a question of her own. “It would be more realistic to do an entire hotel with inclusive design. You shouldn’t pay attention to just a floor or some rooms...This isn’t about ADA, it’s about convenience and inclusivity for everyone.”

Dan Welborn, a vice president and principal at Gettys, says universal design principles are considered in most of the projects he’s involved with. “It’s something we do think about,” he says. “It’s something all designers and developers need to be thinking about.”

He believes many of the people who benefit from accessible rooms may not be the ones asking for ADA-compliant rooms. “Disabilities come in so many shapes and sizes we tend to default to people in wheelchairs, but (others) may be in a regular room,” he says. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates one in five adults have a disability, a number likely to continue growing with the aging baby boomer population.

The sticking point for developers always comes down to dollars and cents. Welborn uses the example of the five-foot turning radius needed in the bathroom, as mandated by ADA’s standards, as one of the biggest challenges to designing an entirely accessible hotel. Adding 25 square feet across a 250-room hotel would increase the price by  $1.5 million if development costs were $250 per square foot. Or that space would need to be reallocated from the rest of the guestroom.

Welborn agrees with Rossetti that many other accessible features could easily be integrated into every room. Simple things like lower temperature and lighting controls, higher electrical outlets, lower mattresses and more open space throughout could make a room accessible to everyone. Her best advice to hoteliers is to find a wheelchair and experience the hotel from that perspective to find design flaws and potential hazards.

A person without disabilities may not even notice accessible design features. “They might say it’s more roomy,” Rossetti says. “The average American would have no clue what universal design is. They might notice the grab bars, but they might not notice anything at all.”


Called the Universal Design Living Laboratory, Rossetti’s home will be built with unobtrusive universal design, resource and energy efficient green-building methods, advanced automation technology, a healthy home construction approach and the design principles of feng shui. The goal is to earn LEED Gold status.

Rossetti and her husband, Mark Leder, closed on the loan last month and hope to break ground this month just outside Ohio’s capital city. Architects, contractors and designers will be invited to the property during construction and after completion it will be open to the public for a month before the new owners move in. From there, tickets will be sold and tours will be offered on a daily basis. The basement, accessible via an elevator, will have a seminar room for ongoing training and fundraising events. All proceeds will benefit spinal cord research at Ohio State University, Rossetti’s alma mater.

The 3,500-square-foot ranch-style home is privately funded with the help of 113 sponsors, who are providing products, services and discounted pricing. One of those is Lutron, which provides lighting control systems popular in hotels. The UDLL will feature Stanza, Lutron’s radio frequency-based lighting system that brings all of the lighting and drapery controls into one system.

“We see universal design getting some serious traction in the hospitality marketplace because it’s an excellent way of thinking about interior design and product design in general,” says Mike Llewellyn, LEED-AP, and Lutron’s marketing leader for hospitality. “Because of the attention it has received so far, and because of the work of people like Rosemarie, we believe that in a short time UD will become a broadly recognized industry standard. In anticipation of that, we have designed our hospitality products according to the seven principles of universal design.”


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