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Home and Place Podcast

Home and Place Podcast: creating cross-discipline conversations about aging and the importance of place.


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In celebration of the 50th anniversary, Nichole (host) will be recording podcast episodes at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference this year! This is a way for researchers to share their work with a broader audience.

Universal Design Toolkit: An interview with Rosemarie Rossetti

Rosemarie Rossetti is a powerful, internationally known speaker, trainer, consultant, writer, and publisher who walks her talk. On June 13, 1998, Rossetti’s life was transformed when a 3 1/2 ton tree came crashing down on her and paralyzed her from the waist down. Author of the Universal Design Toolkit and Take Back Your Life! Together with her husband she designed, built, and lives in the Universal Design Living Laboratory. This is the top-rated universal design home in North America with three national universal design certifications.


Universal Design Living Laboratory

Helpful Links

American Housing Survey referenced in the episode.

Universal Design Living Laboratory for virtual tour, many photographs, and additional references.

Universal Design Toolkit free chapter.

Rosemarie Speaks website for additional information on consulting with Rosemarie Rossetti.


Nichole Kain

Environmental Gerontologist

About your host: Nichole Kain is a residential universal design and aging-in-place consultant, her work is based in solid research and guided by a deep appreciation for the power of place and importance of personal choice. 

Nichole is the founder of Home and Place Project. With a background in occupational therapy, environmental gerontology, and training as a certified aging in place specialist, she helps homeowners, researchers, and business owners go beyond ADA to create beautiful and inclusive environments.

To connect, collaborate, or just learn more about Nichole and her work, please visit: www.homeandplaceproject.com 

Want to be social? You can also find Nichole on InstagramFacebook, and LinkedIn

Podcast Transcript

APA Citation:

Kain, N. (Host) & Rossetti, R. (Guest). (2019, March 1). Universal Design Toolkit: An interview with Rosemarie Rossetti [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.homeandplaceproject.com/podcast/2018/11/26/an-Interview-with-rosemarie-rossetti-universal-design-tool-kit

Intro by Nichole:

[upbeat banjo music]

Hi, I’m your host Nichole Kain and you’re listening to the Home and Place Podcast where I translate theory to practice and create cross-discipline conversations about aging and the importance of place.

I’m so glad you’re here.

Today I’m talking with Dr Rosemarie Rossetti.

Rosemarie is a powerful, internationally known speaker, trainer, consultant, writer, and publisher who walks her talk. On June 13, 1998, Rossetti’s life was transformed when a 3 1/2 ton tree came crashing down on her and paralyzed her from the waist down.

Author of the Universal Design ToolKit and Take Back Your Life! Together with her husband she designed, built, and lives in the Universal Design Living Laboratory. This is the top-rated universal design home in North America with three national universal design certifications.

[end music]

Nichole: Rosemarie thank you thank you thank you so much for joining me today. This is a true honor to have you on the show!

Rosemarie: You're welcome I appreciate you inviting me.

Nichole: You have an incredible incredible story and I'd love for you to share your personal story and your mission, and really how you got into this work of Universal Design.

Rosemarie: It all started from an accident in June of 98. My husband and I were out for a bicycle ride celebrating our wedding anniversary and a 7000 pound tree fell on the bike trail right on top of me and I was instantly paralyzed (paralyzed incomplete) with a need to use a manual wheelchair for my mobility (and now it's been 20 years post injury) as I looked ahead and discovered that there are many features of homes that cannot accommodate people like myself. Coming home with the realization for the first time in a wheelchair what a perspective that was to realize how difficult life is even rolling on the carpet in my home and trying to reach things. You’re trying to take a shower and not being able to get into the door. So, Nichole, that is really the story in itself. No one can predict when something like that going to happen, but why don't we design things right from the beginning??

Nichole: Oh, you're speaking my language! So often when I go to talk with students I'll share some statistics and stories. I know that that we since we speak such a similar language, you find very powerful statistics as well about our society or and what housing is available. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Rosemarie: I think the most surprising is that only 1% of US housing units have these Universal Design features. And there are five basic ones that came out in the American Housing Survey in 2011.

Those are simple things like a no-step entry. A way to get into the home, be it through the front door, the side door, or the garage for somebody in a wheelchair, or someone in a walker, that lives there or is visiting there. So that’s the first, a no-step entry.

The second one is single floor living, so we have all of the bathroom and kitchen and bedrooms on that first floor.

The next is the extra extra-wide doorways and hallways and we're looking at a 36 inch wide door and (at least) a 42 inch wide hallway.

The accessible electric controls to plug things in and the light switches that are accessible and the lever style door handles and faucet handles.

So of those 5 features, only 1% of US housing units have these in place. And then when you look at housing, more than 90% of US housing units are inaccessible for people with disabilities. And that came from the Journal of American Planning Association in 2008. So we’re looking at homes that just don’t work. The features of accessibility just aren’t there.

Nichole: And people will then say to me, “Wait a second. Isn’t there ADA? Doesn’t that relate to housing?” What do you say to them?

Rosemarie: Well, ADA isn’t about private homes at all.

Nichole: That’s right!

Rosemarie: ADA is for the public spaces. In terms of senior living and assisted living, of course. Or if it’s a housing project that’s funded through federal funding, then yes. But it has nothing to do with controlling residential. And ADA is rather limited, so if I were to build a home right now and build it to ADA compliance, my shower would only be 3 feet by 3 feet, and that would not be comfortable for me at all! So ADA is the minimum requirements, and again it is not a law for residential construction unless it is federally funded in some way.

Nichole: Right. And I think that, when I go out and talk with people, that is one piece that is really missing. They say, “But I thought we had ADA. Doesn’t that help?” And the answer is No. So, what does help?

I want to now take a deep dive into something that you’ve researched and created which is called the Universal Design ToolKit. I want to go back to your house, you have an amazing house and I will go back to that in a minute, but I want to focus first on your Universal Design ToolKit. What happens is that people like us will go out there and say, “Okay, this is why you need to build this way, here is how you can build this way.” But, really the people doing the work (day in and day out) it is hard to find time to go to conferences and learn about this. It is hard to find time to watch a video and learn about this. But you’ve created something that designers and occupational therapists can just pick-up when designing a home from scratch, or even remodel something for an individual. I’d love for you to talk more about your Universal Design ToolKit, starting with the research that went into this.

Rosemarie: Well, the research team from building our home (as a result of the frustration from the previous home) my husband and I worked with a very extensive design team to create our new home. Which we’ve lived in now since 2012. It’s the Universal Design Living Laboratory. And anyone can go to our website (www.udll.com). So the research for the Universal Design ToolKit is from the Universal Design Living Laboratory, having worked as the general contractors, we are the builders, and our design team and our architect. We have worked hard and long, it is practical, it’s not just theory. We built this home! And then the ToolKit documents how we did it, with full color photographs, and lots of important space planning dimensions. That chapter itself is worth its weight in the book. It talks about how to create kitchens and bathrooms and entrances, so that people will have independence and livability for their lifetime.

Nichole: Something that I’m a huge advocate for, which is one of the reasons I created this podcast in the first place, is to foster cross-disciplinary conversations about aging and the importance of place. Can you talk about your interdisciplinary team that you pulled together? And why that was so beneficial?

Rosemarie: We had a whole team of the designers including a landscape architect, a building architect, we had a feng shui consultant with us that works with the architect. We had an overall interior designer, we had a kitchen and bath interior designer (who specialized in Universal Design), we had a lighting designer, and then we had over 200 contributing companies, or sponsoring companies, that gave us products and services in order to build our home; and some of these companies had their own interior design team (such as Kohler working with us on the design of all the Kohler products). We also had Kraftmade, who was the contributor of all the cabinetry,  they had their design team also on this project. So we did a lot on the front end making sure design was going to be as functional as beautiful, for a luxury custom home, and that it all blended together.

Nichole: How did you find these people to pull together for your team?

Rosemarie: The interior designer had previously done two additional houses for me in the past and was my best friend, so that was easy. The architect we interviewed, I found a lot of my intuition said higher this man. He had designed senior living and residential, and he was a wonderful man to work with. Kohler we’ve always known as great company and we saw their products at the International Builders Show, as well as Kraftmaid. Also during the International Builders Show, we talked with Mary Jo Peterson during one of her presentations and asked her to be our kitchen and bath designer with her expertise in universal design. So some of them came because they were contributors and some of them came due to referrals.

Nichole: So, the house that you’ve created; and it is your primary residence, correct?

Rosemarie: Yes.

Nichole: And people can come and visit; but NOT to just show up and knock on the door. Is that right?

Rosemarie: We have had 3000 people visit our home so far, but they are all by appointment. We bring groups in and we bring all types of people, students as well as professionals. If someone would like to tour with a group, feel free. If someone is an individual, and they say ‘put me on your list’ then what we do. When we have a group, we bring some individuals in with an established group. We’ve seen some wonderful synergy when mixing a group with some individuals.

Nichole: Very good. I have not been to your home, and I would love to at some point. So I will put my name on the list. However, for those who are not able visit your home, you’ve created this ToolKit for people to purchase and also to have access to all of the thoughtful design decisions that went into creating your home.

So, who is this ToolKit for?

Rosemarie: This is for interior designers and all design professionals. Design teams, building contractors, the architectural group, and it’s also for the consumer who is serious. Life isn’t easy in the current home that they have and they want to remodel or look for something else. It’s also for realtors who want to do a better job for clients looking for home and listing homes to put them on the market. So this book is for a broad scope of professionals as well as consumers.

Nichole: How can they use it?

Rosemarie: They can use each chapter. There is a chapter on finding house plans, and finding floor plans, and there is another chapter on estimating construction and product costs. There is another one on checklists for Universal Design features, and safety checklists, and home assessment checklists, as well as certifications. There is a whole section on finding grants;  finding sources of funding and helping people to modify their home remodel or build a new home. There is also a section on: What do you ask a client, if you're a professional, about their current and future needs? As well as for the consumer: What do you ask a professional designer or builder, that you're interviewing, to consider hiring?

Nichole: I want to go into now something that gets asked all the time, and it's examples. What are some examples of Universal Design, in the home, that you found through your research?

Rosemarie: We look at the entry first. That's the most prominent; how to get into the house. Most people that have attached garages will come in through the garage, and that becomes the problem in many homes. People want to put a ramp up from the garage into the house because there's a couple of steps there. Now we realize not all state codes are alike, but here is the point; where permissible, we need to look at a no-step entrance into the house via the garage by slanting the floor slowly so that any of the gases from the cars can escape. Also, to help with that, we put in some very small bath exhaust fans in both of our garages that run 24 hours a day every day. So, should there be any gas, it will be expelled through the exhaust fan. So that’s  how to get into the home, and we'd like to see no ramps but built it right from the beginning with level grade.

Nichole: I love it. That's one thing I often to talk to design students about; is that it doesn't matter how beautiful it is inside (or how wonderfully Universal it is on the inside) if people can't get into the house, it doesn't matter. I love that you talked about that first because it is crucial. Another area that people often have a challenge with his the bathroom. Can you talk about Universal Design for bathrooms?

Rosemarie: I think it's important that we look at safety in the bathroom, and that’s where the use of grab bars comes into play. It also is a matter of space, so that we are not restricted from access and do the toileting area or access into the showering area. We also need to look at the length of time we plan to stay in there. How many of you know an 85 or 90 year old who doesn’t need help taking a shower? So therefore, your showers need to be ample in size and have built-in benches and chairs to accommodate. They should also be curbless. I’m a proponent of the channel drain, instead of the center round drain, I think they're much safer. So, our shower is 4 feet by 7 feet with a 36-inch wide opening, curbless entrance, with a slight slope to the floor, and a channel drain to the back. We have the handheld shower unit on an adjustable vertical bar, and we have a built-in shower chair for accessibility. It has created a very independent and safe situation with the grab are strategically placed on those walls.

Nichole: You touched on something earlier, about it how many people in their 80s might need assistance showering. I think it depends on the built environment; how is it their home structured and does it meet their needs or is it not matched to their abilities?

A comment that often comes up when I talk about Universal Design is that it must be more expensive to design this way. I think you and I completely agree on this, that it's it's NOT, especially especially if you're thinking about what retrofitting costs would be.  

Thinking about how homes, as our abilities change, do not match our new abilities; and what the costs are going to be to retrofit them to make them match. Or can we just design it from the beginning, to make it a little easier for everyone??

Would you like to talk about that, or any questions that you receive about costs and share your thoughts are on this topic?

Rosemarie: Yes, costs are a very popular question that comes up when I do presentations around the country as well as when I’m working with builders as they want me to consult with them. My answer to that is looking at the cost and benefit. What is the benefit of putting these features in? What does it allow the family to do? What is the difference between price if you were to buy a 36 inch wide door (if you’re building a condominium) or if you’re buying at 32 inch wide door? What does that allow the person to be able to do? To be able to get into the bedroom, to be able to get into the bathroom. It's maybe a $5 differential (on a wholesale basis) to be able to buy that 36 inch wide door. So why not why not? Why no buy lever handles and lever faucets? Why not put in the taller toilets, which are around 17 inches from the toilet seat to the floor. As long as you’re replacing a toilet, who wouldn't want to have a easier time getting on and off the toilet? Some of these things are cost benefit, and if we're looking at a bathroom remodel and we're looking at a kitchen remodel (considering that total cost) to be able to live in that home for your lifetime, compared to the cost of one year of Assisted Living. I mean, that makes a lot of sense to families to say I would rather age in my home and live in my home for as long as possible, until I really do need skilled nursing care. So the cost for remodeling then becomes very wise to say at this will give me 5 or 10 more years in my home, where I won't have a chance of falling nearly as much as I did in the other home. The price of a fall is critical, that's the number one reason people are going to emergency rooms.  

Nichole: Yes, and we know that if someone has falling once they're more likely to fall again.

Earlier, we touched on your home (the Universal Design Living Laboratory) that people can look at online. You have a video tour online and also a 3D experience, so people can virtually move through the space (this is really fun!). You also have the Universal Design ToolKit, and you also do some consulting. So, as we’re wrapping up, I would love for you to talk about the consulting that you do (and what that might look like) and then any call to action you have for our listeners.

Rosemarie: I do a lot of consulting with builders, either condominiums or senior living. It could be apartments or it could be an individual’s home. So they bring my husband (Mark) and I in as consultants on the design side; and we're happy to work with people all over the country, it need not be located in Columbus, Ohio. We have clients all over the place.

Nichole: How can people reach you?

Rosemarie: My email is easiest is: Rosemarie@udll.com

Nichole: Rosemarie, it has been It's been an unbelievable delight and honor to talk with you. I've been a big fan of your work for a long time and I am very grateful for you to have come on the show today.

Rosemarie: Thank you. Thank you, Nichole. I appreciate the exposure and the ability to help those who are listening today.

[upbeat banjo music]

Exit by Nichole:

Thank you for listening to Home and Place Podcast, you can find links to the items we discussed on the website: homeandplacepodcast.com

Subscribe on iTunes so you never miss an episode, while you’re there please rate and review the show. This really does help more people find the podcast.

If you have show ideas, I’d love to hear them! Reach out on my website or social media. I’m on Facebook and Instagram @homeandplace

I’m your host, Nichole Kain. I’m the owner of Home and Place Project, rethinking the built environment. With a background in occupational therapy, environmental gerontology, and training as a certified aging in place specialist, I help homeowners, researchers, and businesses go beyond ADA to create beautiful and inclusive environments. My work is based in solid research and guided by a deep appreciation for the power of place and importance of personal choice.

To connect, collaborate, or just find out more about me and my work, visit my website: homeandplaceproject.com

Special thanks to the Audio Information Network of Colorado for broadcasting this episode to their radio listeners. Learn more about them at aincolorado.org

And finally, thank you to Delia of Northfield, MN for composing and performing this original music. Take us home, Delia!

Nichole Kain