With an aging population, a gap in home design emerges
Suzanne and Dan Swisher started looking for a new house a few years ago. With their children grown, they were ready to downsize to a place where they could live for the rest of their lives.
But Suzanne had to visit most of the homes and models on her own. Dan, whose spinal cord was injured in an accident almost 20 years ago and uses a wheelchair, waited in the car, held back by steps at the door. Even some houses in communities for people over 55 had stairs, Suzanne said.
“It was impossible,” she said. “Building a custom home turned out to be our only option, unless we would have bought something older and completely rehabbed it.”
Fewer than 4 percent of U.S. homes have features that ease visits by a person with a wheelchair — an entry without stairs, wider hallways and doors, and a first-floor bathroom, according to a report issued this month by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.
But with the U.S. population aging, demand for those kinds of design elements is likely to grow.
By 2035, 1 in 3 households in the U.S. is projected to be headed by someone age 65 or older, according to the report, which described the country as at a “critical point” for planning for their needs. About 17 million households are expected to include someone with a disability that affects physical mobility.
At the same time, 87 percent of seniors surveyed by AARP in 2014 said they want to remain in their homes as long as possible.
“We’re seeing more and more people trying to live at home … and the housing stock has not kept up with that pace,” said Jana Lynott, a senior policy adviser at the AARP who focuses on livable communities. “We need to completely rethink how we’re going to provide the amount of accessible housing.”
Nearly 3 million households did renovations to ease access for the elderly or disabled in 2015, according to the American Housing Survey conducted by the federal government, which added the question that year at the suggestion of the Harvard housing center. That represented about 4 percent of all home improvements, the survey found.
People in the industry said they expect those numbers to increase.
More than 6,000 people have completed a three-day National Association of Homebuilders course focused on aging in place, making it the organization’s most popular offering, said Dan Bawden, CEO of Houston-based Legal Eagle Contractors, who started the program in 2001.
Manufacturers also have started designing more stylish versions of items such as grab bars, so the changes are less likely to stand out, he said.
“It’s such a humongous market,” said Bawden, who said his firm incorporates those kinds of improvements — which can range from adding a few grab bars to much bigger overhauls — into every job it does. “It’s more than a trend; it’s kind of an avalanche beginning.”
Builder Kiere DeGrandchamp, head of construction operations for Pennsylvania-based High Performance Homes, said he first started thinking about the need for those design elements in the 1990s, when families asked for renovations like showers that are flush with the floor.
Since High Performance Homes started a few years ago, he incorporates them into every home he builds— about 10 a year.
“I decided that I was going to build to that standard,” DeGrandchamp said. “We build everything to age in place, which means you have the ability to grow into your home pretty much until you don’t need it.”
DeGrandchamp’s design — including no stairs at the front door — helped his model stand out, said the Swishers, who hired him to build a house in Westminster, Md., on a lot next door to their son’s home. The roughly 2,000-squarefoot home incorporates wide halls and doors; light switches and outlets in easy-to-reach places; and a hand-held shower, among other features.
They plan to move into the home, expected to cost more than $400,000, early next year.
Dan Swisher said he’d like to see more builders incorporate such universal design principles into their homes.
“It’s something that should be standard, because oftentimes it’s not a matter of if, but when,” he said. “You’re going to have somebody in the family that is going to have mobility concerns, most likely.”