Hands-free happenings

NKBA veteran discusses how hands-free is being used in universal


It’s easy to limit the discussion on hands-free to everyday examples, such as the faucet in an office kitchen or the toilet at the airport. However, with this month’s spotlight on hands-free, Plumbing Engineer wanted to address hands-free within the scope of a popular trend being forecast for 2015: universal design.

To help with this discussion, Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, CBD, CAPS, CAASH, instructor with the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) University, shared her insight. Peterson’s design career began in 1982, and she spearheaded the development of NKBA’s first universal design courses in 1992. Following is what we call her “veteran outlook” on hands-free and universal design.

PE: Can you describe your work with NKBA?

MJP: I remember 25 or 30 years ago, when I first took an interest in universal design. I approached NKBA knowing it was something we should be teaching our members. They said, “Great! How about you learn it and then teach it?” That was the catalyst for me spearheading NKBA’s first universal design courses—at a time when I was only beginning to understand the concepts myself. NKBA helped me travel across the country to learn all I could from universal design experts, so I could write the course. That inspired me to write two books on universal kitchen planning and on universal bathroom planning. The books' contents were also the focus of my first two courses. I continue to teach universal design for NKBA University, as well as the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB), Harvard School of Architecture, and other channels. My basic kitchen and bath planning books are part of NKBA’s professional resource library.

PE: How do you define universal design?

MJP: In today’s terms, universal design is really convenience in how we approach and use our environment, products and spaces. For those of us who are able bodied, it is just convenience. As our bodies change, our lifestyle changes, and our age, size and shape change; universal design becomes essential. How can we take an anticipatory approach to design, knowing the body and its ability to bend over and get something out of the oven, or climb to get something off the top shelf, for example, will change? It’s that extra thought that goes into planning a space or a product so that it is as easy as possible to use and maintain.

What makes universal design so popular now is that it really is beautiful. If it isn’t subtle and does not enhance the space, then it’s not universal design. We no longer have to live with something that stands out like a sore thumb or looks like and an assistance device. It enhances the beauty of the space, and it also enhances the way we live.

PE: Why is universal design a trend to note for 2015?

MJP: Several reasons. The biggest is that so many of us are coming into an age where it’s changing from convenience and comfort to a necessity. We need to be able to easily access and grip things and to avoid bending as much. There’s also a greater diversity of who’s using different spaces in the home; traditionally, a household had one cook, and she was a certain size, shape, and, height. Today many couples and family members cook together—and they’re all different sizes, shapes, ages, and have different abilities. There are also many more people with disabilities living longer, more vital, and active lives. Universal design not only meets these needs, but it’s evolved so that aesthetic isn’t sacrificed. The days of sterile hospital grab bars in the master bath are a thing of the past.

PE: Can you draw the connection between universal design and hands-free?

MJP: Hands-free faucets offer a lot of convenience. Say, for example, I’m carrying a baby in one arm but need to turn on the water to wash my hands—all while I’m still holding that child. How much easier is it if I don’t have to grip the faucet and adjust the temperature, which takes two hands? Perhaps I have arthritis and my hands aren’t able to grip. Then it’s not a convenience, it’s a necessity. The growing demand for hands-free faucets also reflects that homeowners want to conserve water, as the sensor technology makes it easy to turn water off when you may have left it running before. And not just super expensive ones. American Standard has one where it’s not just motion there’s a blue LED light and a red LED light on the other side, so that if you put your hand by the red it will get warmer or by the blue it will get cooler. It’s a very natural and intuitive way to adjust the temperature. Intuitive design is a key principal of universal design.

PE: Are there any hands-free projects that you would like to highlight?

MJP: Last year, I worked on an active adult, 55-plus community in Arizona with hands-free faucets in some of the model homes. I worked with two architects on their own home—a hands-free faucet in their kitchen was a must. My favorite project was one I worked on in my own hometown. A couple brought me on board to help design the house they plan to retire in, one where they can stay for the rest of their lives. That project was a perfect example of how functional and beautiful universal design can be.

When hands-free technology first came on the residential scene, there were lots of attractive kitchen faucets. I’m really glad to see they’re being used in the bathroom now, too. I don’t think people know that yet.

PE: What advice can you offer regarding hands-free design?

MJP: I have advice for everyone involved: Read the directions! When I first started working on universal design projects, it required me doing things differently than I had before. And, it’s often challenging to get contractors and other professionals involved to stop and look at how an item has to be installed. It’s not necessarily complicated—just different. A no-threshold shower is different from a shower with a basin, just as a hands-free faucet involves a power cord. The good news is that there are a lot of step-by-step videos on YouTube showing exactly what to do. And if you’re not sure, pick up the phone to call the brand’s customer service 800-number and they’ll walk you through it.

PE: What can we look forward to in the future with universal design?

MJP: Universal design is now not only being embraced by the mass market but also by the building industry. Take the high-end luxury production builder I’ve been working with in Arizona. Every one of the showers is a no-threshold shower. That’s an amazing step. It’s something I’ve been trying to do for 25 years, and I’m so glad to see it’s being embraced so enthusiastically. We’re reaching a point where all good design will be universal. We will incorporate universal design in all good design, and that’s a good place to be. 

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