Designed to 'Age-in-Place'

As architects we were bombarded in college about “form following function.” We wondered: “Does that really occur in the real world?” The answer is yes, as we are all finding out when we work with “aging-in-place” clients.

The oldest Baby Boomers have now passing 60 in 2007. As members of this generation age, they will expect comforts and conveniences just as they have their entire lives. This includes not wanting to move out of the houses that have been their “homes” for years to come. But they will require that these homes possess a contemporary look to make them extraordinary.

And they will also expect “aging-in-place” amenities reflective of potential limitations.

We recently faced this challenge when we were asked to remodel two bathrooms in a 30-year-old condominium for an aging couple (she was in her 70s and he in his early 80s). I am going to focus on the master bathroom and the form that followed function.

The client wanted to solve several problems with the bathroom. They had trouble getting into and out of the existing bathtub. The bathroom looked and felt small and crowded. There was little storage. The vanity was uncomfortable to use. And the client could occasionally hear sounds from the apartment on the other side of the wall.

To address all these concerns meant gutting the bathroom. By just removing the tub and soffit above it, we were able to create the perception of a larger room. This led to the design of a full width shower with a bench at one end. To damper the sound from the adjacent apartment, we added a sound deadening board underneath the drywall at the common wall.

We also did several things to help address the aging-in-place requirements:

  • Plywood was added to the shower walls so that when, and if, the clients wanted to install grab bars, they would not be confined to a certain location.
  • Vanity bases were installed at 36 in. high so that the owners would not have to bend over to perform daily activities.
  • New full-width mirrored medicine cabinets were installed above the vanity that incorporated internal electrical outlets.
  • Two decorative grab bars were added in the shower to allow our clients to feel “safer” while using the shower.
  • The toilet was installed at “comfort height” instead of regular height, making sitting and getting up easier.

The result is a comfortable, contemporary bathroom that delighted our clients. The form of the bathroom for aging-in-place followed the simple functionality of creating a cleaner and open design that allowed for modern features to be adapted into an existing space.