Designed to last a lifetime

Blurb: Home builders and remodelers are discovering the value of incorporating into their projects plans that help homeowners adapt as they age.



UFor many people, as they get older their world shrinks. They can't reach as high or bend as low. High shelves are left to the dust bunnies. A 4-inch front door sill can become as daunting as a wall.

Yet simultaneously, baby boomers repeatedly tell pollsters they want to stay in their own homes as long as they can - "age in place" is the catch phrase.

Increasingly, solutions are being devised to reconcile these often-competing realities. Home builders and remodelers are recognizing the need for planning not only floor space for today but also for the future:

- Bathrooms are being designed for people who become less mobile and less steady as they age.

- Hallways are built wider, in the event the resident becomes a wheelchair user.

- Kitchen and bathroom sinks are designed without cabinets underneath, again to accommodate access to the sink by a wheelchair user.

- Light switches are installed a couple of inches lower on the wall, to allow use by people whose shoulder joints stiffen.

The three-day course titled Aging in Place, which focuses on building such accommodations, is the fastest-growing education program offered by the National Home Builders Association.

Seeing the need

The Tampa Bay area already has a strong advocate for designing homes to cover changing physical needs for a person's lifetime. Former architecture student Walton D. "Wally" Dutcher, 70, of St. Petersburg is founder of the nonprofit Caring & Sharing Center for Independent Living, designed to help people with disabilities live on their own.

Dutcher, the retired owner-operator of a cabinet manufacturing company, has been a quadriplegic since a diving accident in 1956.

He says that a universal design approach to homes and condos that foresees in the construction a less-mobile future will reduce costs and inconvenience in later years. He terms this concept life span design "because it's building an environment that will adapt to anyone during a lifetime."

Simpler life span techniques include:

- Paint interiors with contrasting colors, for easier visibility.

- Design interior lighting so that it can be changed as eyesight fades.

- For a two-story home, design space for later addition of an elevator or a stairway-based chair lift.

The bathroom should be a major focus for life span designs, Dutcher said. "This is where the greatest cost comes in for remodeling, because if you need any form of accessibility due to disability . . . you may not be able to modify easily. . . and you would have to put up with the inconvenience of workers coming in and out."

His solution? A life span bathroom has a roll-in shower that can accommodate a wheelchair or walker. There will be handrails. The toilet seat will be raised higher from the floor.

"The public thinks, 'We're never going to be disabled. We don't want to think about our mortal- ity,' " Dutcher contends.

"My answer . . . is that you pay an inordinate amount of money for insurance - for an event you hope that will never happen . . . Whereas because we are an aging America, the likelihood of disability is significant."

He has an ally in Albert K. Wahbey, owner of A.K. Construction in Naples.

"As a remodeler," Wahbey says, "whenever I come (to) a new client, I always mention" this sort of universal design.

"Typically, I ask them, do they want to continue to live in this residence?"

If they say yes, "Then I say, 'You're going to age in this home. What can we do to make your life easier in the future?'

"In case there's a problem, you want to have that solution in place."

But for all his remodeling clients, "no matter what the age," he automatically includes accessibility touches such as grab bars on any shower installation and wider bathroom doors.

Wahbey said such items do not add significantly to the cost of remodeling.

He has a guest house behind his home that incorporates universal design concepts such as roll-in shower, ground-level entrance, light switches lower on the walls by a half foot, push-pull rheostats for ceiling fans, levers rather than knobs for door handles.

"The cost (for making these installations) is the same," Wahbey said, "but there's a tremendous difference in usability."

A feel for the problem

He is among a growing number of builders who have taken the three-day seminar to become a certified aging in place specialist. This national program's seminars are offered by many of the 29 chapters of the Florida Home Builders Association, known as the FHBA.

The three days cover technical specifications and marketing the ideas. In the first seminar, participants learn to experience life as someone with a disability:

They explore moving around while using a wheelchair. They can wear goggles smeared with Vaseline, to represent diminished eyesight. Or they can try to turn a doorknob while their hands are covered by socks that each have a tennis ball stuffed at the end, to simulate the challenge posed by arthritis.

About 200 people have earned the certification in the past three years in Florida, according to Suzanne Cook, FHBA director of education and training. She said that participants have included "any industry professional working with the senior market" - builders, real estate salespeople and interior designers.

Nationwide, an estimated 1,100 people have taken the seminar since it was started in 2002 by the National Association of Home Builders, according to Jim Lipides, communications manager for NAHB remodelers.

Lipides cites a 2005 survey by the AARP that reported 89 percent of those 50 or older said they wanted to live in their own homes indefinitely. "A survey we did of remodelers showed that 75 percent said demand for this kind of work is increasing," Lipides said.

"We did another survey that revealed the aging population would be the No. 2 most-significant issue that will be affecting remodeling in the next five years," he said. (The availability of skilled labor was No. 1.)

Model of accessibility

Already working to accommodate those needs is Tim Davis, owner of Davis Remodeling in Lakeland. In 2005, he partnered with Mark Brown Construction Co. in Lakeland to build a model home Davis designed to have universal access.

The 2,500-square-foot, one-story house has four bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths.

One bathroom is totally accessible and has a floor drain, Davis said. The walls and floor are tiled, with a central drain in the floor. It has a pedestal sink and toilet, as with other bathrooms, and a roll-in shower for a wheelchair.

The house is on one-quarter acre and is selling for $350,000, he said.

"We put universally designed accessibility cabinetry all the way through the kitchen," Davis said.

For instance, there's a higher "toe-kick" - the industry term for the space between the floor and bottom of the cabinets - to accommodate a wheelchair.

There's no cabinet under the kitchen sink, again to allow wheelchair access. The same holds true for the range top.

Countertops are lowered a couple of inches, to be more accessible by someone using a wheelchair. All doorways in the house are 36 inches wide, instead of the standard 24, and all hallways are 48 inches wide.

The house's floor plan, Davis said, "is wide open. No obstructions for a wheelchair."

Light switches are lower. Wall sockets are higher.

The costs for materials in such modifications from the standard are incidental. A lever door handle, for instance, could be cheaper than some round knob handles.

"What it really takes is planning," Davis said. "If you plan to put in, say a 3-foot-wide doorway to accommodate a wheelchair, instead of a 21/2-foot-wide doorway, the extra cost in materials may be around $25. But you need to plan ahead to see if widening the doorway impacts the walls."

Dutcher offered a different view:

A standard small bathroom would be about 42 square feet, he said, whereas a universal design bathroom would be closer to 95 square feet, because "you have a 5-foot turnaround radius" for a wheelchair user.

Dutcher estimates the "raw costs" of construction today are about $90 a square foot. He said one of the larger costs of retrofitting a house would be in grading the yard to accommodate a wheelchair ramp to an entrance.

Davis said that while his fully accessible house has not yet sold, "We did it as a model . . . to show some of the options (people) might want to have in their existing homes."

Fred W. Wright Jr. is a freelance writer who lives in St. Petersburg.


Finding the right fit

A year-old magazine, Ultimate Home Design, is focused on environmentally friendly, life span living. Its editorial policy says it "respects, values and attempts to accommodate the broadest possible spectrum of human abilities, regardless of age, ability, or physical stature, in the ergonomic design of products and environments that are easier to use and more aesthetically appealing . . ."

Aimed primarily at builders and architects, the magazine also features articles for their customers. Its circulation is about 30,000; subscription rates are $20 for the mail version, $10 for the online version. To get more information or to subscribe, go to .


To learn more

For more information about the accessibility design concepts mentioned in the articles, go to:

- Florida Home Builders Association: .

- National Association of Home Builders on Aging in Place: Go to and search for Aging in Place.

- National Aging in Place Council: .

- Iowa State University Extension Housing: www.extension.

- Stair lift: .

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