The Norman Transcript

December 29, 2013

What you need to know about building a house for all ages

By Dave Boeck
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — I have taken the classes required to become a Certified Aging in Place Specialist. What does that do for me, and what does it mean?

I have come at this from just living in the reality of getting older. This certificate now means I can formally promote myself professionally as a specialist who can help people understand how their built environment will affect their freedom in living independently day to day.

As an architect, I have been designing with accessibility standards in mind and using the Americans with Disability Act, also known as the Attorney’s Full Employment Act of 1990, since it became law. I had no choice if I wanted to stay licensed in the state of Oklahoma.

Being a design professional meant understanding the ramification of the law and integrating how it was interpreted into building design for the health, safety and welfare of the building users.

I wrote the article that started me moving down the road of writing for The Transcript about aging in place and design last summer after my back surgery and before my knee surgery.

The article focused philosophically on this aging process and the connected physical realities that come with it, and how this process has influenced my design process, especially in designing homes. I have been designing homes since 1975. That is almost 40 years.

Back when I started as a student intern of 20 years young, designing homes with two stories was pretty common, and many of those homes had all the bedrooms on the second floor. Many had only small baths on the first floor. None were designed around the idea of growing old and staying in them as long as possible or designing those with features that would make it easy to convert them to places where disabilities would not keep anyone from moving to a nursing home.

In the last eight years, that story has changed. Every home I have designed has included a conversation about the owner having the desire to stay in that house as they grew older with the ability to design in features that made rooms useable, even if physical disabilities came to be a reality. Along with designing for disabilities has come the concept of universal design, which basically means designing a space to be used by all ages and all abilities.

With the aging population, the focus seems to be concentrated on designing for diminished ability that comes with age. It also means design for all disabilities and sizes and ages. A 5-year-old may have trouble navigating a standard three-foot-high counter, light switch, a can opener or even a door. By designing in the realm of universal design, the designer focuses on how whatever is designed can be used and enjoyed, no matter what the circumstance and ability.

And so it is with the house my wife and I are building across the street from the house we lived in for 19 years as our children went from elementary and middle schools through high school and finally college.

During that time, our neighbors aged along with us. Their children played on the lot we eventually built on and then also grew up and moved away. When we acquired the lot eight years ago, we started thinking about the idea of designing a house to meet our needs as more mature adults now being classified as empty nesters.

That home of 19 years met the needs of two young, healthy adults with three kids who were energetic and physically active. During those years, I was running, riding a bike, playing golf and playing tennis as well as coaching youth sports. It didn’t matter that all the bedrooms and the full baths were upstairs. There were no issues with walking stairs 20 times a day.

That has all changed. I have recovered well from my three surgeries, but I can tell the difference in walking stairs, in that I now have discomfort in the vertical movement of my legs and bending my knee.

When I was recovering from the surgeries, walking up and down the stairs to get a shower took a lot of work and assistance. Since the only bath downstairs had a sink and a toilet, the alternative was a wash cloth, a bar of soap and standing in front of the sink to wash.

So now the design of the new house is addressing these issues. It will have all the standard ADA design requirements and suggestions: hard and easily maneuverable floor surfaces, outlets at 24 inches above the floor lever-type door handles and faucets at no higher than 48-inches, halls at least 48 inches wide, doors at least 32 inches wide and preferably 36-inch-wide cabinets with shelving that is designed not to have to reach in under a counter or that brings shelves down to a level where you don’t have to get on a stool to access stuff. The list goes on and on.

We also are designing for our grandkids when we will have those coming to visit, so they can feel independent at accessing, using and maneuvering through the house.

This is the first in a series of two to three articles about the development of an age-friendly house and how it will be a prototype for what I hope will be more age-friendly homes in Norman.

By investing in the development of new homes as well as renovating existing ones, those who want to can “age in place.” This basically means Norman residents, with a home and a community that supports healthy aging, can maintain the independence and support to continue living in the homes they love in the neighborhoods where they feel secure and are supported by long-standing personal relationships with their friends, family and neighbors.

Finally, it also means having the type of health care system that will support healthy aging.

I look forward to the dialogue that I expect will come out of the reading of these articles. I am inviting you to find Age Friendly Norman Facebook page that I developed last year. Initially, there were some posts, but there hasn’t been one from anyone other than myself in a while.

I would like to start another conversation that includes your ideas about aging in place and what makes an age-friendly home and community. Let me hear from you.

Architect Dave Boeck is an associate professor in the OU College of Architecture. He can be reached at DLB@OU.edu.

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