New Developments: Designing A Better Vegetable Peeler

4 min read

A few weeks ago, I drove my family up to Connecticut to visit my parents (my first real trip since COVID-19 struck) and found myself shucking some local oysters one evening with my dad. My shucking technique is only so-so and the oyster knife I was using was a bit of an antique. The knife slipped more than a few times and, while I managed to avoid a trip to the emergency room, I felt a bit like Beetle Bailey enduring punishing KP duty.

Neither my shucking skills nor the equipment performed as desired.

After I had dressed my wounds and enjoyed my oysters, I remembered an article in FastCompany a few years back about the popular kitchen brand OXO Good Grips and its “vegetable peeler that changed the world.” (We now have three in our household.)

It’s a fascinating case-study of how the principals of universal design create a better product not just for the initial intended audience—in OXO’s case, people with arthritis—but for everyone.

There are many well-documented benefits to implementing universal design concepts in the built environment that extend beyond assisting people with physical disabilities For example, an entrance ramp benefits individuals in wheelchairs, as well as able bodied parents pushing baby strollers or the Amazon delivery person wheeling up her 50 daily packages to your property. In the COVID-19 era, it is useful to consider healthy housing design and operations as an extension of universal design. There are many opportunities to design and operate affordable housing in a manner that should help mitigate the spread of COVID and/or reduce environmental factors that contribute to higher morbidity in the short-term, but will also have positive outcomes for residents and operations in the medium and long run once the pandemic is curtailed.

One logical area for immediate focus is indoor air quality. Investments in higher performance HVAC systems, air filters and air filtration systems will push more virus out of the environment. They also tend to be more efficient than legacy models, which in the long run should lower utility costs at properties. Furthermore, many utilities around the country administer financial incentives for multifamily owners to upgrade HVAC systems, so the costs of such upgrades may be minimal while the benefits are myriad.

In addition, it is more important than ever for multifamily owners to switch to low VOCs paints, flooring, cabinetry and cleaning supplies to further improve indoor air quality for their residents and staff. These days, the price differential between healthy building products and conventional products is de minimus, while the contributions to resident health is significant.

Now is a great time to start working with your management staff on upgrading your operations and maintenance plans across your portfolio. Ensuring that your existing (or, ideally, new and upgraded) air filtrations systems are being properly maintained will help mitigate the spread of COVID and will also help your equipment run optimally from an energy efficiency standpoint. This has become all the more important today when rental revenues are stressed. It is also a great time to take steps to ensure your building envelope and plumbing fixtures are performing. The mold resulting from water penetration and plumbing leaks cause significant health issues, which are exacerbated by Coronavirus.

It may also be timely to consider upgrading security doors, keyless entry systems and lighting systems. Upgrading to a key-fob system—ideally with powered and automated entry doors—will create a safer low-touch/no-touch building entry for residents and staff. These systems give property managers enhanced control over who enters the building, enhancing the overall security. Sensor activated lighting in common spaces, such as hallways, have a similar effect and also create energy savings. There are voice-activated elevators on the market that not only create a low-touch/no-touch experience but also enhance the ability of the blind, the disabled or anyone just carrying two bags of groceries to utilize the elevator more easily.

These all may seem like small things. But collectively, incremental investments in healthy housing result in healthier outcomes for at risk individuals. And, just like universal design and the OXO oyster knife (They don’t just make vegetable peelers!), also benefit the broader populace.

Thom joined National Housing & Rehabilitation Association (NH&RA) in 2004 and currently serves as its as Executive Vice-President and Executive Director. NH&RA is a national trade association and peer-network for affordable housing and tax credit developers and related professionals including: investors, lenders, public agencies and professional advisers. Thom directs the association’s day-to-day operations including legislative and regulatory advocacy, committee activities, conferences and events, publications, financial management and strategic planning. Thom also serves as the Executive Director of the Tennessee Developers Council, a state-wide trade association for affordable housing developers and professionals active in Tennessee. In 2013 he spearheaded the launch of NH&RA's Preservation through Energy Efficiency Project, a major educational initiative supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Thom also serves on the Board of Directors for International Center for Appropriate & Sustainable Technology (iCAST) as well as the Advisory Board for its ResourceSmart program, a turn-key, cost-effective, green rehab provider for multifamily affordable and market-rate housing communities and nonprofit facilities. Thom is a frequent speaker at affordable housing, sustainable development and tax credit industry events and has been published in a variety of industry journals including Tax Credit Advisor, Independent Banker, and the Novogradac Journal of Tax Credit Housing. Thom also serves as the Associate Publisher of Tax Credit Advisor, a monthly magazine for tax credit and affordable housing professionals and is an Executive Vice-President at Dworbell Inc., a boutique association management and communications firm in Washington, DC. Thom was previously employed at a national lobbying firm focusing on financial services and technology issues. Prior to moving to Washington, Thom worked in media relations in the New York State Assembly and as a research assistant for New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen. Thom graduated Magna Cum Laude from Tufts University with a double major in Political Science and History.