It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. But one thing we know for sure — we are all getting older, and in increasing numbers. In three years, about one-third of the U.S. population will be 50 and older, an unprecedented demographic milestone. It is the first time in history that a nation has achieved such an extended life span for so many of its citizens.
Membership in this extraordinary cohort, however, is one that many in the over-50 crowd are not ready to acknowledge, especially the ever-youthful baby boomers. Even though the calendar says they are getting older, they are not growing old. Planning for their old age while they’re planning a new house is, well, unthinkable.
But age-denying boomers and homeowners of any age might consider making a new house “visitable,” on the off chance that someone using a walker or a wheelchair will be visiting. This person could be a parent, a grandparent, or a much younger person — for example, an Iraqi war veteran.
Though not widely known, the visitability concept was first proposed about 20 years ago by Eleanor Smith of Decatur, Ga., who remains one of its strongest proponents. The inspiration came from her personal circumstances, she said.
A wheelchair user since childhood when she contracted polio, Smith had no trouble moving about in the public realm — driving a car and navigating about in the local mall, the cineplex and her bank, for example. But in her own neighborhood she was always confined to her house. Not only was this hard for her, it was stressful for her entire family.
This changed dramatically in 2000 when Smith moved into a new subdivision where every house is visitable. For the first time in her life, she said, she can visit her neighbors on the spur of the moment and attend social occasions in someone else’s home.
There is no national visitability advocacy group, but at Smith’s urging, determined disabled residents in a number of municipalities around the country have succeeded in getting visitability standards mandated for all new houses.
What makes a house visitable? At a minimum, your guest needs a way to get into your house and a powder room that is accessible.
To be more specific, your guest will need a “no-step threshold,” an entrance doorway that is 34 inches clear, a doorway to the bathroom of similar width, and a 5-foot diameter turnaround space inside the bathroom next to the door. The latter will enable your guest to turn around and close the door and to transfer from the chair to the toilet, which should be 18 inches high. Your guest will also be appreciative if the flooring in your main living areas has a minimal threshold at those spots where the material changes from carpet to wood or something else.
The only thing on the visitability checklist that’s tricky is the “no-step threshold,” and then only if you’re building a house with a basement (more on this below). If you’re building on a slab, this would be an unusual but not impossible request of your builder.
How big a leap is it to go from making your house visitable to making it livable for yourself, should you one day be using a walker or a wheelchair?
To get a sense of what it feels like to navigate a house in a wheelchair, “imagine a car that is 30 inches wide and 48 inches long. Now drive it around the house,” said Mary Jo Peterson of Brookfield, Conn., a kitchen designer and age-in-place expert who has worked on livability issues for more than 10 years. If you can do the mental exercise that she suggests, you soon realize that the most livable houses have an open floor plan with few walls.
Though the livable-house idea may seem daunting, Centex Homes found it to be easier than they anticipated when it adapted one of its standard houses to be a universally designed, aging-in-place demonstration home in Manassas, Va., said Jeff Albertz, Centex’s vice president of marketing.
(The term “universal design” is commonly used to describe a house or other facility that can accommodate people of different sizes — a 3-year-old child and a 6-foot parent — and differing ability — again a small child and a grandparent who uses a walker.)
With 3,900 square feet of living space, Albertz said, it was not difficult to rejigger the floor plan to get wider 48-inch hallways, 40-inch stairs, 42-inch aisles in the kitchen, and a 5-foot-diameter turning circle in the master bathroom. Incorporating universal design features into a smaller house will be harder, but Albertz said that their experience with this one has shown that it will not be impossible.
The biggest challenge for the Manassas house was the no-step threshold, Albertz said. To avoid a 25-foot-long ramp to the front door, Centex lowered the first-floor level about 18 inches, making it only 12 inches above the grade level outside. This halved the length of the ramp, giving it such a subtle rise that the casual observer notices only that there is a walkway from the driveway to the front entry.
This solution, however, required additional excavation for the basement. In order to get enough headroom in the basement rooms, the basement floor was lowered by about 12 inches, explained Tom King, an architect with Devereaux Associates in McLean, Va., the firm that designed the project.
The kitchen was outfitted for a homeowner in a wheelchair. There are recesses under the cooktop and sink; the dishwasher is raised so that it can be loaded while in a seated position; and all the important storage can be easily accessed by a person in a wheelchair, Albertz said, adding that all the universal design features have been so seamlessly incorporated that Centex has two tour guides on hand whenever the house is open to point out features that visitors would otherwise miss.
How much did the universal design features add to Centex’s cost? Many of the modifications including the wider door openings and blocking behind bathroom walls to support grab bars for the toilet, tub and shower were costless, Albertz said.
The two biggest items were the no-step entry and the kitchen. But, Albertz pointed out, the kitchen modifications could be easily switched in later, as long as you build in the 42-inch aisles, wide enough for a person in a wheelchair to be comfortable and for other household members to get around him or her.
All told, the modifications added about 10 percent to 12 percent to the base price of the houses in this subdivision, which range from $550,000 to $750,000, Albertz said.
Are any of the age-in-place features that Centex incorporated widely available? Not as yet, largely because the buying public has proved to be squeamish. Pulte Homes, which builds active-adult communities all over the country, has found that the subject must be gingerly approached and “subtle in delivery,” said Mark Marymee, director of corporate communications. Buyers are more receptive to details that are simply “cool” than to ones that are “helpful to older buyers,” he said. For example, in their Phoenix and Las Vegas active-adult communities, Pulte offers a roll-in shower that is enclosed by a rounded, frosted glass wall instead of a door or a curtain.
For more information on “visitability,” visit www.concretechange.org.
For more information on Centex’s Demonstration House and Universal Design, visit http://www.pwcgov.org/ud/.
Questions? Queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.