Forever Home | Can our homes be designed to keep us young?

Part 1 in a series of 3 originally published in Soundings newspaper.

The old saying goes: There’s only two things in life you can count on: death and taxes. I think we can all agree that we’re all getting older, that means at some point no longer being able to live in or visit their beloved homes.

Looking back over the last 15 years, I’ve had the privilege of designing homes for all sorts of interesting people. I realize I’ve gotten the same request multiple times: create for us a home that we can grow old in. My clientele tend to be forward thinkers, ecologically minded, and eager to embrace clever, practical solutions that allow them to stay in their homes and avoid moving to a care facility. The current approach to designing a home to age in often stirs up feelings of dread and disgust when you see what’s being recommended. The status quo seems to suggest we are to sacrifice our active lives and beautiful homes for retirement in a single level home only (with no other option), decorated with electric lift assist chairs and with enough padding and metallic grab bars that it begins to resemble the very casket we’re all trying to avoid. Surely there is a better way, and in this series of articles, I’d like to present some tasteful alternatives and a different perspective on how we can spend more years in the community we all love.

Staying Active

How many of us have heard this advice before? Keep gardening, play bridge, play golf and walk the mall once a week. What if our homes were actively designed for staying active?

On a recent trip, I was inspired by an older woman, likely in her 80’s, climbing an uneven stone staircase in an Italian hill town. I imagine she was making her way to the entrance of the family home, and she’s been climbing that same staircase for her entire life. Imagine the muscular strength, dexterity and balance that comes from climbing those uneven stairs every day. I would suspect her lifestyle has slowed down, but I imagine it to still be filled with activities like walking to the market, cooking meals for family who may likely live with her in the home, and socializing with her lifelong neighbors.

That experience guided me when designing a home for an older couple nearing retirement in the coast. My solution combined future proofing (planning ahead) with incorporating physical challenges into the design of the home in an effort to keep them active. Rather than a single level home, we specifically placed the master bedroom suite up a flight of stairs. Uneven cobblestones were incorporated into the landscaping paving, so walks in the garden would be enjoyable while also helping to maintain dexterity and balance. The wife works in the insurance industry, and she planned on keeping active by moving her office to home. A sun-filled room with views over the garden and a separate entrance was located adjacent to the driveway as the perfect place to meet with clients. The room also had a bathroom with a shower that only aroused suspicion in that it was slightly bigger than a normal bathroom. The clever part is the future proofing of this space, as the office and bathroom were sized to accommodate a bed with space to navigate through the room and bathroom in a wheelchair. The wall-mounted sink and curbless shower made bathing easier, and behind the plasterboard and tile was extra wood blocking to allow for future grab bars and other mobility aids to be attached securely. When the time came that the clients could no longer climb the stairs, this ground level room turned into a bright and cheerful master suite, complete with large windows to maintain a connection to their beloved garden.

Maintaining Routines

When my grandfather retired from work, the first thing he did was build a garage and shop in the rear of the property. He had for many years worked on our family farm, leaving the house at sunrise, coming home for lunch prepared by my grandmother, and then heading back to work for the remainder of the workday. Routine and a sense of purpose was important for him, and the shop he built allowed him to continue his routine and afforded him a physical space for his hobbies, volunteer work, and his tinkering. He recaned chairs for a few family members, took up golfing, and helped organize the building of a new church sanctuary all surrounded by the tools that he and his father had used to run the ranch. Most importantly, the physical act of leaving the house to go to work similar to the clients’ detached office above preserved his routine and purpose in life. Some in the family might claim it also preserved his marriage by keeping him out of my grandmother’s hair.

Multi-Generational Co-Housing

Keeping up on politics, engaging in community activities, and staying connected to the world, facilitated by our internet connection seems to be a commonality we all share. What if we were to go a step beyond our weekly calls with our kids and actually create an environment where we share lifestyles, household responsibilities and even a roof with a younger generation? Perhaps both could benefit?

On a recent project I have under construction, I’ve been asked to build a multi-generational home for two sisters in Healdsburg. There’s a 9 year spread between the husband and wife, along with a 9 year spread between the two sisters. The math works out to an 18 year spread between the youngest and oldest members of the household. Our design breaks down to four volumes, with connector elements between them. The main volume contains a shared public space: an open plan kitchen, dining and living space with large doors to an outdoor living space. The bedroom volumes connect to the shared volume, forming an H-shaped plan. Separate master suites for each of the sisters and spouses are housed in these volumes, along with a home office and a media room that doubles as a guest room.

While designing this project, what quickly became clear was the need for privacy, both physical and social. The ends of the bedroom volumes face a view, and when asked if they preferred bedrooms that faced a view or a private lounge area, both sisters requested view facing lounges (and more closet space). The ability to separate oneself and be alone, appears to be key to the success of designing a cohabitational home.

The fourth volume is a garage and shop space, which, along with the home office, allows the occupants to keep their routine into their retirement years. The benefits of this living arrangement are beyond the obvious act of sharing a roof. Ideas, conversations and activities shared between the members of the household will surely keep both on their toes. Household responsibilities like cleaning, cooking and eventual care-taking of older family members will now be shared, lessening the physical and emotional strain that comes with being a primary caregiver. Depending on the size and features of the home, the ecological impact can be less than two separate homes.

None of these ideas are revolutionary. They don’t include the latest technology, and would most likely seem familiar to our great-grandparents. Like so many good ideas, they’re based on common sense. In the next installment in my series, we’ll explore new products that help to keep us in our homes when our bodies start to fail us, and to do so with a degree of style instead of that hospital look.

Chad DeWitt is the Creative Director at Oakland-based architecture collective, Framestudio. He recently had knee surgery during his recovery, he gained sympathy for those with reduced mobility. He found bathing while sitting on a cheap plastic stool to be humiliating. He’s now inspired to use good design to change our ideas about aging.