Aging in Place: The Boomers green building priority

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the elderly population will more than double between now and the year 2050, to 80 million. That means roughly one out of five adults in the U.S. will be over the age of 65.

And an AARP study found that the desire to continue to live in the same house increases with age: “83% of homeowners age 65 and over said they were “Very Likely” or “Somewhat Likely” to stay in their current homes for the rest of their lives, compared to 78% of those ages 55 to 64, and 69% of those ages 45-54.”

That’s a lot of feisty Baby Boomers, not wanting to leave the places so painstakingly designed to perfectly fit domestic needs, to surrender to a future in some homogenized old folks home. We Boomers want aesthetically beautiful, safe and stimulating places to live, where we can continue to entertain, and have our families visit. And we want to stay put.

The Boomer population has already been asking for more flexible home spaces that match our changing lifestyles, empty nesting, caring for an aging parent, and other future inevitable shifts and changes. As we age further, those requirements will surely include health issues, and, just as likely, a fixed income and, now, suspected climate change impacts.

This same generation that originated and was weaned on Earth Day, solar panels and CFLs is also demanding that same level of environmental integrity and balanced living in the homes we choose to live out our lives in.  

Current Boomer housing requirements show continued demand for smaller and easier to maintain living spaces, single-story homes, more livable houses featuring in-home accessibility, open floor plans, and indoor/outdoor living.

Many of these features sound very familiar to those of us in the green design and building field. In addition to energy efficient and good indoor air quality, important tenants of green building include a smaller footprint, better connections to the outdoors, and a floor plan that is open and multi-purposed to maximize the use of every square foot of space.

New housing and renovations that are green for all – or “universally” green, and set up for aging in place, would include many of the following:

  Single story homes with a master bedroom and bath on the main floor

  Low, or no, thresholds to enter and maneuver from room to room

  A home that is easy to maintain and clean

  Kitchens that allow for safe and easy movement while cooking and preparing meals, with potential to change out appliances for more assessable fixtures

  Kitchens that have storage that is easy to reach

  Doors (cabinet and passage) that “disappear”

  Easily navigable bathrooms with threshold-free showers

  Energy-efficient heating and cooling for more sensitive bodies

  Better indoor air quality for weaker immune systems

  Efficient and effective lighting for older eyes

Green Built NC checklist offers points for accessibility:

  All habitable rooms have 34” wide doors;  all hallways are 42” clear, finished
  Accessible bathroom provided on the main floor with blocking for future accessory installations
  Cabinets and storage shelves between 18″-48″ from the floor (min. 50% by volume)
  Kitchen sink with knee space, and stove top with controls at the front and knee space underneath (or removable cabinet beside or below the stove top)
  Bedroom storage shelves 18″- 48″ from the floor (min. 50% by area)
  Clothes closet with 32″ clear opening (min.) and adjustable hanging rod
  5′ turning radius around the bed
  Doors and faucets use lever handles; cabinet handles are ‘C’ or ‘D’ style
  Electrical panels, thermostats, breaker boxes, and any control panels are located on the main floor (max. 54″ to top)

We know that a pro-active new-building and adaptive-reuse platform should take into account these needs for the aging, keeping what is working and redesign what is not. And while we are planning for the future compromises of aging, we should also be thinking about these same possibilities for anyone. I like to know I have a home that my 94 year old mom can safely visit, that my friends with limited mobility can come to, or that should I – knock on wood –break a leg!

One last thought: At an aging-in-place conference held a few years back at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, the presenters challenged professionals to design spaces to accommodate a population that could potentially live – by year 2050 – to the very ripe old age of 125!

That isn’t very far away. Any well constructed home on the drawing board today should still be a very usable structure in these short 40 years. And a home designed or renovated using any of our better green building programs should be addressing equally, issues of energy efficiency and aging in place.

Since 1988 Victoria “Vicki” Schomer has been an activist and spokesperson for the green design and building profession. She is an award-winning ASID interior design, USGBC LEED Accredited Professional, REGREEN co-author, a designer and consultant for sustainable planning, remodeling, and green product specifying, and a Realtor specializing in identifying adaptable, and “green-able” properties.

You can also view this article as it was originally published on pages 46-47 of the 2015-2016 edition of the directory or as a pdf