The baby boomers were the first American generation to grow up in the suburbs. Now that they are turning 65 at a rate of 7,000 per day, those same suburbs may be ready to turn against them.
The reason is that a majority of homes in the U.S. are not designed in a way that will safely and comfortably accommodate their owners as they get older. Stairs become tougher to maneuver for individuals with bad backs and achy joints. Conventional door and faucet knobs are hard for arthritic hands to turn. And inadequate lighting makes seemingly benign spaces more accident prone.
Multiple studies confirm that most boomers like where they live and would rather stay put than move. A majority (84%) of boomers in a recent AARP survey indicated they wanted to stay in their own homes for as long as possible. That sentiment was shared by nine out of 10 older survey respondents who are already 65 or older.
But how long "as long as possible" is may be unclear. In another recent AARP survey of Americans aged 50 and over, 49 percent of respondents anticipated that their current home would not be able to accommodate their physical needs as they age.
Recognizing this impending reality, some builders have already begun factoring mobility and ergonomic concerns into the design of their homes. "Aging in place is the next big thing," Steve Romeyn, a builder of small active adult communities in the Atlanta suburbs, told Builder in an interview nearly two years ago. Standard features in homes built by Romeyn’s company, Windsong Properties, include first floor master bedrooms, lever door handles, and non-step entries. You don't have to use a wheelchair or walker to appreciate their pretty design, but you aren't prevented from living there if you do.
While the boomer generation, by sheer nature of its size, will likely catapult the need for universal design into the spotlight, active adult builders aren’t the only ones tuning in to the benefits of a more inclusive design mindset. During a press conference at the International Builders' Show in Orlando this month, builder Sarah Oudman, owner of Treasure Homes in Wheatfield, Ind., noted that many design features intended for individuals with limited mobility or other impairments can have benefits for all different types of homeowners, regardless of age.
"We are building in a very mixed neighborhood that’s not necessarily all 55+ or handicapped people," explained Oudman, whose cottage prototype, "The Gem," was a winner in AARP’s 2010 Livable Communities Awards. "In fact, this neighborhood is mostly families. But I thought, ‘Why not create a home that could stay with people through multiple phases?’ It’s important for home not to be one of your major stress points when life changes. Whether it’s surgery, the birth of a second child, or you blow out your knee playing football, your house shouldn’t be something that creates more problems in your life. It should help solve them."
Most of the universal design features in the cottage by Treasure Homes (which, by the way, is also built green) are transparent, Oudman pointed out. Take the wider hallways, which are "good for wheelchair access but also just for moving your furniture around," she said. Bathrooms are equipped with invisible backer supports behind the walls in the event that towel bars need to be swapped out for grab bars, or a transfer bench is needed for the shower.
"When you look at the house you don’t see that these are accessible features," she explained. "But the house has been prepared ahead of time so if you need a change, it’s ready to change with you." Other practical features include multiple-height kitchen work surfaces, comfort-height toilets, and wide pocket doors. The only hitch Oudman encountered during planning was a local ordinance requiring that all homes include front porches with step-up entries (the town adheres to New Urbanist planning principles). This was resolved with an easement allowing ramp access to the rear patio.
"One thing we have learned about universal design is it’s not that difficult if you plan ahead for it," Oudman said. "There are many things you can do in design to incorporate or plan for potential changes. For a person who doesn’t have an issue with mobility or accessibility, little things still can make a difference. Universal design and housing in general are going to be dynamic going forward."
For remodelers, building accessibility into existing homes gets a bit trickier, but it's not impossible. In this case it may be the homeowner who is driving the impetus for universal design.
Such was the case with another Livable Communities competition winner – a remodel in Pasadena, Calif., by interior designer Jeannine Clark of Mannigan Design. The owners wanted to adapt their 1960s condo so they could continue to live there comfortably into retirement. Thus, the house was retrofitted to include a no-step entry with a wider front door (36 inches wide with an 18-inch side lite), lever door hardware, a recessed door gasket, additional entry lighting for better visibility, and a doorbell with a camera that is linked to an in-home monitoring system, explains Clark, a certified aging in place specialist (CAPS).
The house also includes heated honed limestone floors (which are slip-resistant), comfort-height toilets, reinforced bathroom walls (to accommodate future grab bars if needed), an oversized medicine cabinet, and wider hallways.
"As the Boomers begin turning 65 this month, this first generation to grow up in the suburbs is looking to update their homes to be more comfortable, or to find that just-right place that keeps them close to family and friends," said David Shotwell, AARP’s senior director for livable communities.
The builders who begin to solve this puzzle first will no doubt be ahead of the demographic curve.
Visit www.aarp.org/homedesign to see additional winning projects from the 2010 Livable Communities Awards.
Jenny Sullivan is a senior editor covering architecture, design, and community planning for Builder.