Over the past generation, the increase in our aging population has been a topic of interest across multiple disciplines. Health-care specialists, economists, sociologists and — often a surprise — architects are looking ahead at projections of the aging population, working to brainstorm solutions to best sustain our future selves.
While some architects are focusing on enhanced design of senior-care facilities (a distinct contrast from old-school nursing homes), a trend is emerging in the residential sector: in-home, aging-in-place design strategies.
Aging-in-place design is marketed to a particular demographic, but it actually falls under the umbrella of universal design, which is becoming better known in the design industry as inclusive design. This is design — from the full architecture of a building to minute details such as material or fixture selections — that creates an equal experience for people across a wide spectrum of abilities.
The phrase “inclusive design” has naturally close ties to “accessible design” and therefore the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). However, there are distinct differences between inclusive design and ADA standards.
The ADA is a law born out of the civil rights movement for equality; inclusive design is a holistic strategy that looks not to segregate people, processes and design elements based on ability/disability — which the ADA draws attention to and aims to correct — but to unify the built environment as equally accessible to all. There is an inherent overlap, but the ADA is, unfortunately, often reduced to a set of minimum requirements to be met, and the spirit of the law is not comprehensively embraced. That spirit, however, is embodied in inclusive design strategies.
For example, if a house is built on an uneven site that cannot easily be leveled, the typical building response is to add steps to the front door — and possibly, to be explicitly “accessible,” a ramp at the back entrance. This is a fairly common way to address a nice entrance that also accommodates wheelchair access.
In inclusive design, this house would instead be designed with a gradual ramp — perhaps through a nice landscaping feature — to the primary front entrance, so everyone is using the same route, regardless of whether a wheelchair is involved.
Inclusive design, just like accessible design or ADA standards, is not specific to people in wheelchairs. There is a wide range of abilities — including disabilities — that should be comprehensively considered.
As our abilities change, from age or otherwise, the design of our environment can turn daily tasks into monumental hurdles. If inclusive design is not well integrated, the homes we love and cherish may end up hurting us or requiring us to transition to completely new residences that better accommodate a wide range of abilities.
For new construction projects, incorporating elevators or adding first-floor guest bedrooms with full bathrooms (which can later be transitioned to master bedrooms) is becoming more popular. Similarly, designing zero-threshold showers allows for an easy transition if mobility or sight becomes limited. Even bracing behind the bathroom walls for the future addition of grab bars in a shower or at a water closet can be a thoughtful integration if you plan to stay in your home long-term.
There are also many smaller-scale changes that can be made in your existing home to extend functionality over your extended lifetime.
One of the easiest design reveals is on the hardware throughout a home. For instance, knobs can be difficult to grip for someone with arthritis or who has limited mobility. Lever handles for doors and faucets, as well as pulls for cabinetry hardware instead of knobs, are a simple adaptation.
Architecturally, flush transitions between carpet, tile and hardwood floorings eliminate trip hazards; even removing the overhanging bullnose on stair treads can help prevent tripping. Pocket doors, which slip in between wall studs instead of opening on hinges, avoid the difficulty of opening an in-swinging door if someone uses a walker. Doorways — pathways in general — that are extra wide can easily accommodate people and any of their swag/necessary medical devices, of all shapes and sizes.
Even seemingly nuanced design decisions, such as the color palette throughout your home, can affect your ability to age in place. As we grow older, our ability to distinguish between similar colors and textures diminishes. Incorporating higher-contrast colors in a space, such as cream walls with wood-trim molding and dark furniture, can help enhance overall visibility/legibility throughout a home.
As time goes on, we can only expect more cures, solutions and supports to aid in our longevity. Making inclusive design choices or adaptations to your home now can help you age in place gracefully and enjoy your home for many more years to come.
Stephanie Brick is the owner of Stephanie Brick Design in Baltimore.