Consider Current and Future Needs

Homes designed for aging in place draw on the basic principles of universal design, which eliminate barriers to access and provide a safe environment for people of all ages and ability levels. Some of the most common features of a universally designed home are:

  • Zero-threshold entries and interior doorways
  • Wider doorways and hallways
  • Hard-surface flooring and no level changes
  • Open floor plan
  • Main-floor living potential, including a full bathroom (preferably a no- or low-threshold shower)
  • Pocket doors
  • Lever door handles
  • Bathroom grab bars (around the toilet and in the shower)
  • Raised-height toilets
  • Ramps or lifts for any level changes
  • Multiple countertop heights
  • Roll-out and pull-down cabinet shelving
  • Lowered wall cabinets
  • Task lighting
  • Lowered windows or taller windows with low sills
  • Lowered light switches and raised electrical outlets
  • Stacked closets to provide a shaft for a future elevator

    According to Levner, universal design isn't just for the elderly or handicapped. Rather, it ensures that people of all ages and ability levels can live comfortably and safely in a home.

    "The thing about universal design is that it's better mainstream design. It's not just design for special needs—and aging is a special need," says certified aging-in-place specialist Mike Vowels, of Stewardship Remodeling in Seattle. Vowels, who is an advocate for universal design and aging in place and speaks publicly on both, has used a wheelchair for 23 years.

    In addition to making living in a home easier, universal design is economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable, Vowels maintains. Correctly and tastefully executed universal design upgrades add value to a home, while building a new home with accessibility and aging in mind eliminates the need for future alterations—saving materials and energy. Building a house that people of all abilities can easily live in or visit also enhances social interactions and enables multigenerational households.

    "Everything we do in designing a home is about making it so it's marketable, fits the neighborhood, and is as beautiful as possible," says Emory Baldwin, AIA, principal and co-founder of the Seattle-based, universal design-focused architecture firm ZAI Inc. Then "you don't think of it as a special house for aging. It just functions for everyone."

    Baldwin developed the concept of "Human Life Cycle Design" as part of his graduate thesis in 1997 at the University of Washington, and ZAI employs it in 99 percent of its projects. Based on the many changes that households experience throughout human life cycles, Baldwin's approach to universal design ensures that a house is flexible and adaptable and can accommodate life changes without dramatic renovations. (ZAI recently won the AIA 2009 Small Projects Award for Accessible Residential Design for the design and execution of Baldwin's own home.)

    While universal design creates an open and flexible environment for everyone, some clients may have more specific needs. Because each client is different, aging-in-place solutions are not one-size-fits-all. Custom builders or remodelers who excel at addressing individual concerns and are open to working with variations from the norm have the best chance of succeeding in the aging-in-place market, according to independent living strategist and aging-in-place consultant Louis Tenenbaum of Potomac, Md.

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