It’s time for builders and designers to get comfortable with the notion of aging. From Medicare to Alzheimer’s, from home care to estate planning, aging is the subtext of conversations everywhere these days. And rightly so, because an unprecedented 10,000 people are now reaching retirement age every day. These are the baby boomers, members of what once was the largest population bubble in history and a major driver of economic and cultural trends from the start. Chalk up the invention of canned baby food, the ubiquity of blue jeans, and the popularity of yoga classes to the cultural and economic power of the boomers. And this cohort is remaking American housing in its own image—again.
The boomers first rocked the housing industry before they were even born. The 1944 GI Bill of Rights provided 4.3 million new home loans to the World War II veterans who would become their parents. At the same time, the Federal Housing Administration revived residential construction, stagnant since the Great Depression, with guaranteed loans and emergency financing. Millions of families traded city apartments for suburban homes, making a potent statement: The American Dream is built on single-family home ownership.
But now that dream is tarnished. Features in the built environment that once were empowering have become restricting. Stairs in split-level homes and sunken living rooms are falling hazards. Standard bathrooms are too small for assisted bathing, and they have plumbing fittings that arthritic fingers cannot manipulate. Kitchen storage is too high or too low. For those with hearing loss or low vision, poor acoustics and inadequate lighting can make the golden years lonely and dark. And each physical barrier also represents a barrier to independence. Compounding the challenge is the fact that, unlike their parents, boomers are starting encore careers and planning to stay put in their homes.
Here’s the good news for remodelers: You are the solution to the mismatch between aging homes and aging bodies. The time is ripe for a more responsive vision of home, one that returns dignity, independence, comfort, joy, and grace to daily living, throughout the lifecycle. Providing that to clients represents more than a marketing opportunity; it’s also an opportunity to reverse the trend toward unplanned obsolescence, expand your company’s skill set, and increase the value of your services to the public.
More Than ADA Compliance
The Fair Housing Act Design Manual and the 2010 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Standards for Accessible Design are essential resources for remodelers. But the most effective design parameters are those that serve your clients’ routine daily activities, the variety of physical, emotional, and sensory conditions that come with aging, and the wide range of human adaptations.
It’s not enough to simply specify an ADA-compliant toilet, because left-side flush valves can still be beyond reach, and code-standard clearances for toilets are too tight for transfer or assisted care. Similarly, typical building codes say nothing about navigating through one’s home in a wheelchair. Architectural access codes are more useful but give little guidance on optimum dimensions, which can vary depending on clients’ specific abilities. And knowledge of ADA standards is no guarantee of design skill.
To design is to make choices. When we widen and flatten the path of travel, calling for doors with a minimum 32-inch open clearance and flush thresholds, we make it easier for people with walkers, wheelchairs, scooters, or luggage to move about the home. When we provide alternatives to 36-inch-high countertops, allowing people using a stool or wheelchair to sit while preparing meals, we acknowledge that stature and abilities vary. In planning bathrooms around people instead of plumbing fixtures, we recognize that assisted personal care takes place throughout the life cycle—during childhood and in response to illness, injury, and aging—and that much can be done to make the experience safer and more enjoyable for all involved.
More Than Details
It’s a mistake to look at the obvious features of an accessible home— lever door handles, knob-type cooktop dials, an entrance sidelight— and conclude that the right details are all that’s needed. Design for aging requires a deeper level of engagement from remodelers—not tweaks, but rather a holistic vision.
The most attractive designs seamlessly integrate spatial relationships with built-in features and extend the same mindful attention used with interior layouts to the design of the site, building envelope, and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. For example, a ramp added to an older house facilitates entry but may also broadcast the residents’ vulnerability. A better solution consists of gently grading the site to an entry landing flush with floor level.
The list of positive interventions that improve the quality of life is practically endless, but implementing them requires an updated set of tools:
Humility. What you don’t know can fill a home—with all the wrong stuff. No matter how long you’ve been building homes, this is new territory. Reconsider your assumptions about where to place electrical and plumbing controls. Ask your clients how they need to manage everyday activities—cooking, bathing, toileting, and dressing—and really listen to the answers. It takes more than familiarity with cabinet sizes to create kitchens that work for people who can’t see well, or make it easier for a person with hearing loss to communicate with others at mealtime.
Collaboration. Because personal health information is confidential, it can be advantageous to include health care professionals on the design team. Occupational therapists can advise on the trajectory of an illness or injury and on the value of various adaptive devices. Gerontologists, physical therapists, and aural rehab specialists often conduct home-access assessments to identify areas for improvement.
Curiosity. Ramp up those continuing education credits with seminars and conferences on aging and accessibility. Ask your plumbing supplier and hardware dealer what’s new in their industries. Ubiquitous computing is yielding great advances in home automation. Stay up-to-date on smart home technologies and products.
Working with homeowners to create inclusive home environments can be challenging. The project may have stops and starts, as homeowners compare the benefits of remodeling with those of moving to a single-story house or an assisted living setting. If an illness or injury triggers the decision to remodel, homeowners may find the process overwhelming, so take extra time helping them understand what to expect, using 3D visuals and on-site mockups. If adult children or other family members are involved in the decision-making process, make sure to keep them informed. For retirees, a fixed income makes accurate estimating essential and change orders especially onerous, so take the time to plan and price the work correctly from the start.
Daunting as they may seem, these greater challenges can yield greater rewards. You become more adept as a professional when you expand your knowledge base to include senior-friendly details and products. You become more empathetic when you help homeowners overcome their natural apprehension about change. You gain powers of persuasion when young empty-nesters tell you their renovation goals consist solely of reversing the child-proofing, and you convince them that inclusive design is simply good design. And when the project is complete and the homeowner tells you her new bathroom makes her less fearful of falling, or his new kitchen is more comfortable to work in, or their elderly parents can finally visit, there’s no greater satisfaction in this business.