With an aging pop­u­la­tion, a gap in home de­sign emerges

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - HOMES -

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.”


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