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Redesigning the burbs for Boomers near retirement

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The first American generation to grow up in the suburbs was the baby boomers. The boomers are turning 65 at a rate of 7,000 per day, and those suburbs they grew up in may be ready to turn against them. Reason, well the majority of homes in the U.S. were not designed to handle safety and comfort for their aging population. Things like stairs become tougher to maneuver for people with bad backs or achy joints. The conventional door and faucet knobs are hard for people with arthritic hands to turn.

Numerous studies have been done to confirm that the boomers like where they are and would rather not move. The majority of boomers in a recent AARP survey indicated that they wanted to stay in their own homes as long as possible. In another recent survey by AARP Americans age 50 and older anticipate their current home may not 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. Standard features in new homes built to accommodate the boomers include first floor master bedrooms, lever door handles, and non-step entries. The boomer generation will likely catapult the need for a universal design, active builders aren’t the only ones tuning in to the benefits of a more inclusive design mindset.

Universal design features in the near future might include good wheelchair access, bathrooms with invisible backer supports behind the walls in the event that a towel bar might need to swapped out for a grab bar. “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. 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.

In the kitchens, removing an interior wall to create a more open plan, with counters at 34 inches above the finished floor are being incorporated. Making kitchen islands a movable chopping block on locking wheels that can be moved for flexibility, and the doors underneath the sink can be easily removed to create a roll-under sink base. Other key features include touch-control faucets, upper cabinets with pull-down shelves, a drawer dishwasher that can be loaded from a seated position, a range hood with controls located on the front of the lower cabinet face, and a pull-out hot shelf next to the oven to allow side-transfer of hot food. Automated lighting in the kitchen pantry and laundry area is activated with hinge control sensors.

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


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