LOUISVILLE, Ky. — (NYSE: GE)  Although each of us has a unique profile consisting of height, age, ability, strengths, weaknesses and preferences, most homes are designed to fit a ''standard'' person. As a result, many of us struggle to reach or operate sink fixtures, cabinets and appliances.

Universal Design is a design concept that meets the needs of people with varied abilities. It not only addresses the current difficulties people face, but also the possible physical challenges later in life.

''The time has come for kitchens and homes that fit the real needs of real people – needs that will change over time,'' observed Marc Hottenroth, industrial design leader for GE Appliances & Lighting. ''Our Industrial Design team will continue to take a leadership role in addressing these issues,'' he said.

The Appliance Division of GE Appliances & Lighting teamed up with members of the Carnegie Mellon School of Design and over the past three years have compiled data and statistics and cite changing demographics in America that are adding urgency to addressing these design issues.
  • The senior population is growing at three times the rate of the general population.
  • Currently, 13 percent of Americans are over the age of 65; a figure that will grow to almost 20 percent by 2030
  • By the year 2014, all baby-boomers will have celebrated their 50th birthdays, received their AARP® cards.
  • More than half of Americans expect to have elder care responsibilities within the next 10 years or simply want to be able to entertain and host family members and friends, of all abilities, in their homes.
The Industrial Design Group of GE Appliances & Lighting teamed first with the University of Illinois and then, more extensively, with Carnegie Mellon School of Design. During these meetings a variety of activities took place.

During Phase I, field research was conducted with elder and late baby-boomer communities including personal interviews and observations of consumers in their homes. Focus groups were conducted with this population and comments and observations were reviewed. In addition, a review of literature and compiling of demographic information and statistics were important steps in the study.

The University researchers and GE Industrial Design participants also gathered knowledge from empathy sessions. Participants taped their knuckles and wore gloves to simulate arthritis, put cotton balls in their ears to simulate a decrease in hearing, and wore special glasses that simulated vision impairment such as macular degeneration. This role–playing simulation allowed them to experience firsthand what an aging consumer or special needs consumer might experience when operating an appliance. The group also consulted with health care professionals and gerontologists.

''Phase II consisted of direct application of this knowledge to generate appliance design concepts that would meet many of these needs,'' noted Hottenroth, ''Two dimensional and three dimensional sketching of appliance prototypes were made and sketch models and form studies created,'' he continued.

''Style will be a critical element of these appliances so that nothing is sacrificed when designing these products to be more user–friendly for consumers of all ages and abilities,'' explained Hottenroth.

Phase III will continue with the testing of these prototypes and may include surveys, contextual observation and consumer acceptance testing. ''Like the auto industry's concept cars, there are many design phases, testing and manufacturing challenges to face before a new product is brought to market,''explained Hottenroth.

''GE may use the research to integrate into new product designs for the near future, but there are already many product offerings that accommodate a variety of needs when used with room design techniques that employ the concepts of Universal Design,'' according to Hottenroth.

To review frequently asked questions or see ways that you might incorporate Universal Design into your home, click here.

GE also offers over 100 models that are ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant appliances. The Americans with Disabilities Act establishes accessibility guidelines for products within the home. For a listing of compliant GE appliances, click here.