Before + After: Home for Life Remodel

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Remodelers can play a key role in helping baby boomers stay in their current homes by making those homes more accessible and livable for all occupants regardless of age or ability.

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Every day, more than 10,000 baby boomers turn 65. A recent survey by AARP  found that while 84% of them want to stay in their current home during retirement, only 16% have taken any steps to adapt their home for that lifestyle … and beyond. That’s a sobering statistic that exposes a disconnect between boomers and remodelers.

So we conjured the Home for Life, a virtual remodel of a typical suburban family home that provides a roadmap to integrating universal design, improving energy and resource efficiency, and reducing maintenance chores and costs for an active yet aging empty-nester couple. The project deftly preserves the home’s original footprint to reduce costs and resources while reallocating space and updating systems and finishes to accommodate the owners’ needs now and in the future — without uprooting to Florida.

Conscious Choices

  • Design decisions. At an installed cost of about $20,000, the residential-scaled elevator made it unnecessary to undertake extensive and expensive structural remodeling to create a master suite on the main level that also would have eliminated the screened porch, a valued outdoor living space and thermal buffer. Maintaining the home’s original footprint also preserved familiarity and comfort for the owners; modest (and logical) reallocations of space were both cost- and resource-efficient.
  • Energy-efficient upgrades. Older homes are energy hogs, so the remodel included not only new siding and roofing finishes, but also upgrading the thermal performance and moisture control measures of the wall and roof assemblies with proper air and water barriers, insulation, water drainage, and flashing details — measures that will reduce monthly energy bills, increase indoor comfort and health, and reduce maintenance for the owners.
  • Basement update. Improving the unfinished basement delivers a better and safer sense of entry from the carport, expands the laundry room with better equipment and utility, provides a second bedroom suite, and still leaves ample long-term storage space.

Integrating Universal Design

Dick Duncan says that there’s no such thing as good-looking universal design … because that would be redundant. As the executive director of the R.L. Mace Universal Design Institute, in Chapel Hill, N.C., and the resident expert on the topic for the Home for Life, Duncan has spent a career addressing misconceptions and expanding the definition of universal design  beyond grab bars and wheelchair ramps. “The conveniences are invisible but invaluable,” he says. “There’s nothing in an integrated universal design that doesn’t benefit everyone.”

From the easy (lever handles for faucets and doors; D-shaped cabinet pulls; pull-out storage) to the more sophisticated (better circulation; varying counter heights; at-grade entries), the principles of universal design are not only proven in practice but also flexible in application. “Clients have a lot of choices depending on their personal needs,” says Herman Johnson of Case Design/Remodel, the Home for Life project designer. “Universal design perfectly suits today’s focus on repurposing a home’s existing spaces and making them more functional.”

A Kitchen for All

The Home for Life kitchen underwent a remarkable transformation that perfectly integrates a host of universal design features within a beautiful aesthetic. “It’s a designer kitchen with good function,” says Colleen Shaut, a senior designer at Case who refined the plans and specs.

Upgrades for Energy Savings

Remodeling for better energy and resource efficiency and moisture control is no doubt more challenging than building those measures into a new house, but Home for Life proves that a comprehensive approach is possible — and effective — for an existing home.

With the guidance of green building guru Carl Seville, the plan of attack focused on tightening the building envelope (including better insulation and windows) and introducing controlled fresh-air ventilation, upgrading the water heating and central HVAC systems, mitigating indoor air pollutants, and specifying water-efficient plumbing fixtures. “Priorities will vary based on climate, existing conditions, and the owner’s preferences,” Seville says, “but the basic building science applies across the board.”

The result is a house that will effectively lower the owner’s monthly utility bills, improve indoor comfort, lessen maintenance chores, and alleviate the potential for latent moisture problems.

A Better Wall

Upgrading the thermal efficiency of a home’s above-grade sidewall assemblies can be tricky, and ideally cuts all the way back to the structural frame. “Unless you do it absolutely right, you’ll probably create moisture problems where none existed before,” Seville says.

The key is to pay attention to detail; provide weather barriers and flashing for proper air sealing, water shedding, and incidental moisture infiltration from the outside; and create an insulated break between the wall structure and cladding to reduce thermal transfer. “Remodeling without a thoughtful assembly may lead to latent moisture damage,” he says, and significantly discounts an investment in energy efficiency.

Same House, New Space

The new owner’s suite combines two bedrooms in the back of the upstairs floor plan to accommodate the elevator, a walk-in closet, and a full bathroom while preserving two bedrooms in the front of the plan for occasional or flexible uses. “It gives the owners a brand new space within the existing footprint; a different look and feel to a familiar location,” Shaut says. “It’s new without having to move.”

Project Details

Bedrooms: 4

Bathrooms: 3.5

Size: 3,400 square feet (three finished levels); carport and detached one-car garage

Lot size: 0.5 acres

Design: Case Design/Remodel, Bethesda, Md.

Green Building Consultant: Carl Seville, Seville Consulting, Decatur, Ga.

Universal Design Consultants: Dick Duncan, R.L. Mace Universal Design Institute, Chapel Hill, N.C., and AARP, Washington, D.C.


Home for Life would not have been possible without the support of our sponsors:

Platinum Level

  • USG Corp.  (gypsum wall and ceiling board and accessories)

Gold Level

  • Rinnai America Corp. (space and water heating)

Bronze Level

  • DAP Products (caulks and sealants)
  • Schlage  (interior and exterior door locksets and handlesets; security)

—Rich Binsacca is a freelance writer in Boise, Idaho, whose articles appear in several Hanley Wood publications.

More REMODELING articles about universal design:

15 (or More) Ways to Incorporate Universal Design

Better Living Through Design: An Interview With Jeanne Anthony

Now and Later — Flexible design keeps homes functional as homeowners age

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