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Wise Beyond Its Years: Aging-in-Place Design

Create a home that will live comfortably now and decades into the future with aging-in-place design.
by Whitney Richardson

By the Numbers

Although aging-in-place goes beyond simple measurements to help make the user as comfortable as possible, here are a few basic spatial provisions you should consider:


  • 32 inches of clear width, requiring a 36-inch door
  • Rise of ramps should be no greater than 1 inch for every 12 inches of run


  • 36 inches wide at minimum


  • 5-by-5-foot clearance or turn space in which to maneuver
  • Upper cabinets lowered 3 inches from conventional height
  • 30-by-48-inch clearance space in front of appliances


  • 1.25-inch handrails on both sides
  • 7-inch riser, with 10- to 11-inch treads

Electrical Elements:

  • Outlets placed 15 inches above the floor
  • Light switches and thermostats no more than 48 inches above the floor, with 30-by-48-inch space of clearance in front to make them accessible


  • 5-by-5-foot clearance or turn space in which to maneuver
  • Toilet stands, or can be adjusted to, 2.5 inches taller than standard toilet
  • Grab bars with the capacity to support 250 to 300 pounds: place around the tub, shower, shower seat and toilet, or brace walls for later installation of such features

Today’s homeowner is not averse to planning for the future. After all, how many times have you toured an open house, taking note of what you will do with particular spaces as you walk through it? In creating a custom home, you get the benefit of starting from scratch, so why not take your planning a step further and think not just of how you currently plan to use your home, but what might be beneficial years down the road?

With strong ties to the principles of universal design in terms of ease and variability of use, aging-in-place design is often misinterpreted as a handicap-accessible concept; although that may be a part of the design, with provisions in place to accommodate a wheelchair or similar equipment later in life, aging in place as a whole goes further than structural requirements and into the personal history and planned use of the home by its owners.

"[The National Association of Home Builders’ CAPS (Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists) program] teaches me to focus on a particular person or couple on how they’re going to age in the house — they’re not already disabled," explains Dan Anderson, a CAPS-certified builder and co-owner of Lake City, Michigan-based custom home-building company Castles and Cabins Inc. "The focus is on their personality, their genetics, their hereditary factors and how they want to live in this house, and what could prohibit them from living in this place for the next 20 years or so."

Equally important to creating a comfortable environment for the homeowners is creating a home that’s enjoyable for guests to visit — or the concept of "visitability," states Marty Schwind, CAPS-certified builder and owner of Martin P. Schwind Contractor Inc. near Richmond, Virginia. Key features include a step-less entry, with a 36-inch door, for easy coming-and-going, as well as accessibility to and usability of major spaces such as the kitchen and a bathroom.

Many people assume such elements will disrupt the overall aesthetic, but that’s not the case, assures Emory Baldwin, principal architect for FabCab, a Seattle-based producer of prefabricated aging-in-place cabin kits. "I think that people just think of aging in place as growing old and lonely in your home, or coming in and doing unsightly modifications with ramps and ugly bathroom fixtures," he states. "It doesn’t have to be that way at all. It can be beautiful."

In addition to planning ahead, which can help seamlessly blend such features into your overall design, some mainstream companies such as Kohler are jumping on board to create more attractive fixtures for aging-in-place functionality. To get started on your own design, here are a few key things to keep in mind.

Light the Way

It’s hard to move around your home if you can’t see very well, so ample lighting is imperative to an aging-in-place design. This includes task-specific lighting, especially areas in the kitchen and bathroom, Baldwin notes, as well as the rest of the home. "Depending on the need, you can turn on A, B, C or some combo [for the light required]," he says.

aging-in-place living area
Aging-in-place design can be both beautiful and functional. Credit: FabCab Design, © 2010, Dale Lang

Entry points also require additional light sources. "[When you’re] coming in from daylight to interior, you need light to adjust," he explains. "It takes longer when you’re older." The same is true for the transition from dimmer evening light to brighter interiors.

To usher in natural light to the main living areas, Anderson recommends installing skylights, which also help with solar heat. When natural light isn’t available, fluorescents are great aids, Schwind says, noting that he may put in additional fixtures in certain applications, such as walk-in closets, to ensure there’s plenty of light. Low-wattage tread lights are also a great solution, Baldwin suggests, for safe navigation at night, especially for heavily traversed pathways, such as to and from the bathroom.

For increased visibility, place borders in contrasting colors in flooring applications, countertops and surface level changes to make it clear where certain elements begin and end. Just make sure they’re not too complex, Baldwin cautions. "Some unusual patterns can cause visual problems [later in life] and make it confusing," he states.

Easy Access

In addition to creating visual contrast for countertops and related items, accessibility — especially in the kitchen and bathroom — should also be considered. For example, creating open space underneath a countertop, especially where a sink is located, allows users to be seated while using it. However, in the case of sinks, panels should be in place to protect the user from hot pipes. Proper storage of under-sink mainstays such as cleaning supplies is also a must, Schwind notes.

Appliances are a major consideration as well. Side-by-side refrigerators with handles extending the length of the fridge are easily accessible by any user. Controls to appliances such as a range or stove should be located on the front rather than the back to prevent potential fire hazards for wheelchair-bound users (and young children, too). Heightened toilets, with grab bars as aids, provide easier independent use. Contrasting colors make them more easily identifiable, too, and a 5-by-5-foot turn space in front of each ensures that anyone can access them.

Curbless, or no-entry, showers are a plus for increased independent use. In addition to having a width of at least 36 inches, such features should also include a seat and adjustable showerhead, which also make it easier for others to assist, if necessary. Another key element to any aging-in-place bathroom: slip-resistant tile.

Home Automation

As physical capabilities decrease, tasks as simple as opening and closing blinds can be become arduous. The solution: automating necessary household activities.

Although it may sound more space age than helpful, such technology creates streamlined usability that’s less for show and more for comfort. And today’s technologies are making the entry point increasingly affordable. "Five years ago, you would spend $5,000 just to get a touch panel," explains Bruce Waltar, program manager at FabCab. "But you can spend $500 today for an iPad and use that as your controller."

In addition to push-button technologies, which can control anything from lighting to the thermostat, sensors are a stand-up solution, as is zoning — e.g., programming certain environments based on time of day or personal preferences, he notes. Other new technologies on the market include smart (or magic) windows, in which ions in the window sense the amount of natural light and transform it from transparent to opaque, negating the need for blinds.

When shopping for technologies, Waltar suggests the following tips:

  1. Keep it as simple as possible.
  2. Make sure the solution is based on proven technology. "The aging-in-place market is not where you want to be trying out some next-generation technology that will work 20 percent of the time," he states.
  3. Install automatically controlled systems wherever possible rather than relying on a button or action to cause an event. Also, ensure there is a manual override, such as an old-fashioned switch, as backup.
  4. Consider wiring your home rather than relying on an outside network. "A wired network with fixed cabling and a jack in every room for every instance is more solid than a wireless network," he states, adding that interfering radio frequencies can affect usage. "With a wired network, interference is not an issue."
  5. Consider a system that can be controlled remotely by a third party — i.e., if something goes wrong, the proper contact (e.g., police, emergency services, etc.) is automatically notified.
  6. Evaluate overall cost, including servicing. "Some items are inexpensive for the materials, but add on a hefty monthly service charge or charge a premium for custom installers to modify the systems once in place," he cautions.
  7. Keep in mind that such technologies will not only make your life easier, but also increase energy savings. Dashboards are available, Waltar notes, that let you tweak various inputs such as thermostat
    settings and electricity loads to find a comfortable model for your home.

Fashionable Flooring

What to place underfoot is one of the biggest finishing decisions cabin owners make. For those interested in aging-in-place design, it’s increasingly important, as flooring directly affects one’s ability to get around the home.

Although cabin staples such as stone and hardwoods do provide some natural slip resistance — essential for any aging-in-place design — because of their surface texture, one product that is becoming increasingly popular is luxury vinyl tile (LVT). Unlike the vinyl sheets with which most consumers are familiar, this product is sold as individual tiles or planks and is typically glued directly onto the subfloor to prevent shifting, which can cause ripples, bubbles or tears in the flooring, and create an additional hazard in the home.

"It’s great because it gives you the realistic look [of a tile or wood] but the easy maintenance of a vinyl," says Bonnie Bouza at VanDrie Carpet One Floor and Home in Cadillac, Michigan.

Because they are made to mimic a variety of materials, there are plenty of LVT options available. "You can do grout, decorative borders or insets," Bouza adds, which, in contrasting colors to the main floor, can serve double duty as a visual aid to note transitions and steps. In addition to its low maintenance and softness, the product is also more moisture-resistant than hardwoods, so its wood-like selections can be used in a greater variety of applications than natural wood, such as leading into a walk-in shower.

If you’re dead-set on using natural materials, however, and need additional warmth underfoot, note that, like carpet, area rugs can be difficult to traverse and provide an extra barrier in the form of a raised surface, so plan your application of such accessories wisely.

Outdoor Enjoyment

A big part of choosing to build a cabin is the ability to interact with the outdoors; that shouldn’t have to change because it becomes more difficult to get around. In addition to making it easy to get in and out of your home via no-threshold entries, you can create the necessary pathways to venture across your property without intruding on the setting.

"Ramps look institutional," notes Baldwin, stating that an efficiently designed walkway won’t be noticeable to the untrained eye. "Plan for your layout so you don’t have to have those kinds of features."

Decks should have at least one no-threshold entry. Although alternative materials such as vinyl are low maintenance — a plus later in life when household chores become increasingly difficult — traditional woods are preferred, Anderson notes, because the grain "has a little more grip to it" than the smooth finish of a vinyl.

Concrete is a great choice for patios and walkways, he says, because it can be outfitted with a groove finish for a traction effect. Because of the winter-prone area he serves, Anderson also tries to incorporate reverse gables to protect such walkways from increased water exposure and, consequently, increased opportunity for slipping.

Proper Planning

Although all of the elements previously noted are ideal in an aging-in-place home, they don’t have to be ready to go the day you move in. Just make sure the provisions are there for easy installation when such items become necessary.

aging-in-place living area
Helpful hardware such as grab bars doesn’t need to be added right away. However, you should plan ahead so that it’s easier to retrofit when such items become necessary. Credit: FabCab Design, © 2010, Dale Lang

Grab bars are a great example. "We put framing blocking in the walls now and put it on the blueprint," Anderson explains. "Then in 15 to 20 years, there’s something to screw it to."

Baldwin incorporated stacked closets into his home for a possible elevator in later years. "It’s a great feature for us because it gives us great bonus storage now for kids’ toys, etc.," he states. It also decreases the overall cost of installation should he and his family eventually decide one is needed. "There’s no major remodel, just the cost of installation," he explains. "It costs about $20,000 to $25,000 for just the installation, but it costs about $75,000 to $100,000 for a remodel. It’s a $300 expense now — it’s almost a no-cost fee upfront."

That price differential applies to nearly any aging-in-place feature you may be considering. "You might spend $5 to $7 more to build new," Schwind explains. "But you could spend $20,000, $30,000, even $100,000 on a remodel for something you can do for practically nothing new."

The bottom line: If aging-in-place design is something you might be interested in, look into it now. You’ll thank yourself later.

Published in Country's Best Cabins
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