Attention, Boomers: Universal design tips for your new house

Shannon Lee | Improvement Center Columnist | June 8, 2015

No one likes to think about growing older, but of course it is inevitable. Fortunately, there are many ways to plan for the days when time catches up with you. Many baby boomers are looking forward to celebrating their golden years in their familiar, comfortable homes -- in fact, nearly 90 percent of all individuals over the age of 65 want to age in place, according to the AARP. But if you can't - or if you're one of the 10% eager for something new - building a home might be the way to go.

In order to age in place, you must make sure your home can accommodate the changes that will come during the golden years. Baby boomers who are building a new home can look to universal design features to ensure that they can enjoy their new abode as long as possible.

The best universal design features

Creating a truly accessible home begins with the layout. Those who want to live in their homes for a very long time might want to keep everything on one level, but if you are in love with the idea of multiple floors, stack closets in the layout so that you can eventually install an elevator. Plan on wide doorways and hallways, with ample room to use a walker or wheelchair. Opt for easy-to-open casement windows. Keep all thresholds level with the floors for a smooth, trip-free surface.

Then turn to the little details that make life easier. Place rocker light switches lower on the wall, and move electrical outlets up to a more accessible height. Add lever door handles throughout the house for the days when arthritis might become an issue. Plan lighting in multiple stages, from targeted task lighting to bright illumination in all rooms. Put down non-skid flooring, and choose appliances that are easy to use from a sitting position, such as a front-loading washer and dryer.

The kitchen is a good place to begin serious planning for the later years. Opt for kitchen features that suit both the able-bodied and the handicapped, such as roll-under sinks, a raised dishwasher, easily accessible cabinetry, and an oven with front-facing knobs. Pull-out shelving can be a huge help to anyone. Use contrasting colors on the countertop edges to help with depth-perception.

When planning the exterior of your home, look for materials that are very low-maintenance, such as fiber cement siding, composite decking, or metal roofing. Be sure to get the best materials with the best warranties, so you don't have to worry about replacements for a very long time. Plan a landscape that is easy to maintain. Finally, try to create a no-step entryway -- but if you must have steps up to the doors, plan out ample room to add a ramp in the future, should it become necessary.

Of utmost importance: handicap accessible bathroom

The bathroom is one of the most necessary places in the house, but it is also one of the most dangerous, especially for those who have limited mobility. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls are the most common cause of injury in the bathroom, making up 81 percent of injuries reported to emergency departments. The number of injuries sustained in the bathroom increases markedly with age. How can baby boomers ensure their bathroom is as safe as possible?

Wider doorways, grab bars at several levels and locations, a walk-in tub or a roll-in shower, a higher toilet with safety bars, and sinks at a level that eliminate bending can help keep you not only safe, but much more comfortable. Hands-free faucets can come in handy, too.

Don't forget the non-skid flooring, and maybe even add a few luxuries, such as heating towel bars or radiant heating under the floors -- as you get older it can become harder to stay warm, so any little bit can help.

Cost and contractors

If you are resistant to the idea of aging in place designs because of the higher price tag, don't worry. As architect Bob Wilkoff told the Washington Post, planning in universal design elements may add only five to ten percent onto the total project cost. "It's almost more of a matter of space allocation than equipment cost," he said. "It's just logical planning."

When choosing a contractor to help you with age in place design, look for one who has earned the Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS) designation. These highly-trained professionals can help you see the bigger picture, including planning for the unforeseen circumstances that can sometimes come with age.

Universal design can help you stay in your house longer. Why not start planning now for a brighter future later?

Photo credit to Kevin Irby

About the Author

Shannon Lee is a freelance writer and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.