Accommodations for elderly have crossover appeal for younger home owners

March 30, 2012

In the music business you have crossover hits that appeal to music lovers of every stripe.

In home building, you have “crossover features” designed to appeal to one group of buyers that resonate with others. For example, details intended to help older buyers stay in their houses as they age can make a house feel bigger, add storage and help parents with the care of very small children.

Design features intended to help elderly homeowners “age in place” are now being marketed to much younger buyers as accommodations that can not only serve them far into the future but also make their lives easier now.

To be specific, every family member from the oldest to the youngest will benefit from a “curbless” or “zero step” entry at the front or back door or in the garage, said Bill Owens, a Columbus, Ohio, home builder. When an entry can be reached without having to negotiate steps, a person using a wheelchair, walker or crutches has no difficulty getting in and out. This also helps the parent of a small child who simply wants to take him out for a walk. Instead of struggling to get the stroller down the front steps and onto the sidewalk, you can open the door and roll right out.

An absence of steps is not the only critical aspect of the curbless entry, Owens said. The opening itself should be three feet wide, so that a person with a large stroller, walker or a wheelchair can effortlessly pass through. Even the crew bringing in your furniture on move-in day will appreciate the wider doorway because it will make their job easier and reduce the possibility of damaging your belongings.

Once you’re inside the house, wider doorways throughout will make every room accessible and ensure that the furniture is put in place without incident. How much wider? Six inches more than the standard 30 is optimal, said Vince Butler, a builder and remodeler in Clifton, Va. How much does this add to the cost? About $2 to $3 for each door, he said.

Wider hallways will also make a difference to someone using a wheelchair or a scooter. A standard 36-inch hall width requires that person to do a lot of maneuvering to get into a room, but when the hallway is six inches wider, the turn is a “cinch,” said Owens. A wider hallway will not affect overall house size because removing a minuscule amount of floor area from the rooms to either side of the hallway to make it wider is inconsequential to the function of those rooms. In fact, the wider hallway and doorway will make the room being entered seem bigger, he said.

A wider stair, which adds about $200, can also make things easier for the household. Add six inches to the standard 36-inch width and two people can use it at the same time. With the extra width you can also move around a chair lift with greater ease, said Butler, who speaks from experience. He installed one for his mother’s use on his own standard 36-inch wide stair and “it’s always in the way,” he said.

A chairlift has other negatives, Butler added. If the person is not ambulatory, you need a wheelchair at each stair landing and a space to park it. Though an elevator is more costly ($15,000 to $20,000 vs. $6,000 to $8,000), you avoid a chairlift’s shortcomings. To prepare for this possibility, he recommends stacking five-by-five-foot closets that later could be converted into an elevator shaft. In the meantime, you get a walk-in pantry on your first floor and an extra walk-in closet upstairs.

Zeroing in on specific rooms, a bigger and more spacious master bathroom is a luxury now that can become a necessity in the future, but where you add the extra space is critical, Owens said. You should incorporate a five-foot turning radius next to your toilet because you might someday need to get a wheelchair in there. Owens said he would omit a separate toilet compartment and, instead, screen the toilet area with a knee wall that is installed over the floor tile so that it can easily be removed, should the need arise.

If there is a vanity next to a toilet, Owens would also install it over the floor tile, so that it could be easily removed if need be.

During construction, wood blocking for grab bars should be placed behind the walls in the shower and toilet area, but nothing more is needed until a household member has mobility issues. At that time, Owens said, you should bring in an occupational therapist to help you determine where the grab bars should go.

For kitchens, Dan Bawden, a builder in Bellaire, Texas, said he favors variable height counters, with work areas both higher and lower than standard 36-inch kitchen counter height. When possible, he raises a dishwasher by 10 to 12 inches to make loading and unloading easier for a tall person and anyone who has trouble bending over.

One of Bawden’s more unusual suggestions is a movable island counter on casters that fits under a standard counter. When the 30-inch island is pulled out, it can be used by an adult who wants to sit while preparing food, a kibitzing guest or a person in a wheelchair. Children and grandchildren can use the lowered island to help cook, and if you knead bread or roll out pastry dough, a lowered counter makes this task easier. With custom cabinetry, Bawden said the rolling island adds about $150; with stock cabinets it adds about $300.

Some “aging in place” features have become standard because public tastes have changed. Owens pointed out that louvered door handles, designed to be easier for a person with arthritis to use, are now ubiquitous because buyers think they look better.

As more and more people discover that wider doorways and hallways make rooms feel bigger, these may become standard too, he said.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or would like to suggest topics for coverage, contact her by e-mail at salanthousewatch@gmail.com or www.katherinesalant.com.

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