Josh Mauney can trace his interest in universal design back to his grandfather.

Mauney had just started in the building business when his grandfather, who had built every home he had ever lived in, was unable to stay in his home in the last few years of his life. “I made a pact to myself to try and find a better way,” Mauney says.

When he stumbled upon the concept of universal design — in short, designing homes that cater to a wide range of ages and abilities — Mauney knew he had found that better way. Now, as president and founder of Raleigh, North Carolina–based custom home builder Paragon Building Group, he builds his homes with 42 different adaptations that help provide what he calls “forever living.”

The universal design specialty has helped Mauney’s business skyrocket in recent years after the COVID-19 pandemic led to a rise in remote work. “It really changed what we saw as a client’s desire to pay attention to some of these things, simply because they were in their home more,” he says. In 2019, Paragon received about 16 leads a year from clients interested in universal design. “We now probably average 15–20 a day.”

Propane lanterns at the entrance and around the pool help Paragon Building Group design appealing outdoor living areas.

Accessible and beautiful design

Universal design was prominently on display at Paragon’s 2021 Southern Living Showcase Home in Pittsboro, North Carolina, the first of its kind designed to be fully inclusive and accessible. The adaptations Paragon includes in its projects range from wider doorways and larger turning radiuses around cabinetry to shafts for future elevators and backfilling the garage to create a barrier-free entry to the house. The showcase home offered a chance for Mauney to prove that rather than evoking visions of a wheelchair-accessible bathroom stall, universal design adaptations can be beautiful.

Like most of Paragon’s projects, the showcase home is located in a more rural region without access to natural gas. So the home uses propane to fuel a number of features that make it both luxurious and easier to use for people with a range of abilities.

All of Mauney’s homes include propane tankless water heaters, which not only provide energy-efficient, on-demand hot water but also serve an important safety function. Universal design calls for the shower valve to be installed on an exterior wall or just inside the door of the large, 25-square-foot shower stalls. The builder installs a recirculation loop that keeps hot water instantly at the showerhead so the user doesn’t have to enter the shower stall to see if the water is hot. The tankless units are also installed lower on the wall so someone can change the temperature on the thermostat from chair height.

By using propane tankless water heaters with recirculation loops, Paragon Building Group ensures hot water is always available at the showerhead, making entry into the shower safer.

Clients who like to cook prefer propane ranges “hands down,” Mauney says, and that goes for the outdoors, as well, where clients are asking for pizza ovens and 42-inch gas grills. In the kitchen, Paragon’s homes typically includes a side-hinged wall oven, which is much safer than lifting a tray over the door.

Propane standby generators are basically standard on homes with price points over $1 million, with sizes ranging from a 22-kW unit to back up most of the home’s systems to a 34-kW size that would provide whole-home protection. “Being able to make sure that that comfort extends through a storm or hurricane, or even just an accident that may take power away for just a couple hours, can be a really big deal for somebody who has equipment that they need to breathe or whatever the case may be,” Mauney says.

Designing for year-round comfort

Other features in Paragon’s homes simply make them more enjoyable to live in. Clients typically upgrade to a better insulation and air-sealing package for energy efficiency, while a hybrid heating system that uses a heat pump with propane furnace backup provides warm, comfortable heating, especially for clients moving from parts of the country where gas heating is expected.

The builder typically recommends propane fireplaces inside the home, as well as an outdoor propane fireplace or gas lanterns around the pool. “Outdoor living has always been popular with people who are from this area and probably far more popular for folks who are moving into our market,” Mauney says, “because they’re moving here for good weather.”

Outdoor living features such as propane grills are especially popular with Paragon Building Group’s out-of-state clients who move to North Carolina to enjoy the weather.

Designing for multiple generations

Mauney has been surprised by the diversity of clients who come to Paragon for its universal design specialty — the builder has clients aged 28–87. As he toured about 1,800 people through the Southern Living Showcase Home, almost everyone had a story about how accessibility or mobility issues affected a parent, grandparent, or other family member. Even young couples value how the accessibility features help them maneuver after a weekend injury or recovering from a long bike ride.

Universal design is the ultimate form of hospitality, Mauney says, because it makes homes accessible for entertaining any guests or family members. He’s seeing a marked increase in clients seeking homes that can accommodate multiple generations. With the added desire for privacy, that’s led to an increase in demand for larger estate lots. So Paragon is doing brisk business in communities such as Riverstone Estates in Pittsboro and Grand Highland Estates in Wake Forest, North Carolina, that offer more space — and utilize propane for gas amenities.

“Customers really see universal design as a significant value-add, and it’s really the whole package,” Mauney says. “The propane is a piece of it, but it’s a big piece of it.”

Photos by Laurey Glenn.