Aging-in-place (A-I-P) is being able to remain in your home and your community as you grow older and remain as independent as possible. When seniors are surveyed, this desire appears at the top of the list again and again. How does this topic intersect with green building and sustainable home design? Green homes conserve water, energy and materials, have healthy interior air, are low-impact on their surroundings, produce fewer carbon emissions, use durable materials, minimize waste, allow for flexibility in living patterns and frequently have space-efficient floor plans.
Basic improvements for aging-in-place
General design upgrades for new construction or retrofits can include 36-inch wide door openings, a bedroom and full bath on the main level, low-pile wool or recycled-content carpet or non-skid flooring, flush floor thresholds, durable finishes, lower rocker-type wall switches (48 inches above floor) and higher outlets (15 inches above the floor,) handrails on both sides of a stair, wide hallways, energy efficient interior and exterior security lighting and non-glare surfaces, hardwired carbon-monoxide and smoke detectors, and windows for day lighting and views. Consider incorporating salvaged materials, recycled-content and non-toxic materials when selecting any material.
For comfort and affordability have above-code wall insulation, a zonal-control energy efficient heating system with accessible programmable thermostat and wall controls. High-tech upgrades could include a blinking doorbell, wifi, elevator, security system and intercom.
For multiple generation households or those employing a caregiver, consider the addition of an affordable space-efficient “granny flat”, backyard cottage or accessible dwelling unit (ADU) either detached in the rear garden or within the home.
Typically the first place aging or mobility-impaired residents experience challenges is the bathroom. Baths and kitchens tend to be remodeled more often than other rooms as needs and tastes change, also costing more per square foot due to their amenities. Sliding or pocket doors can be a good alternative if a swing door does not have enough clearance. Special 180-degree (L-shaped) hinges allow doors to swing out of the path of the wheelchair. Doors into small areas should open outwards in the event of an accident resulting in a blocked path in front of an inward-opening door.
Other upgrades can include a large roll-in shower with no curb. A regular five-foot tub can be replaced with an all-in-one acrylic surround fitted with a fold-down seat, grab bar and hand-held low-flow shower with hose. For wheelchairs a shower floor 36 inches wide is needed. Hand held showers are easier for mobility-impaired occupants and caregivers. Single lever controls for both the shower and sink are easier to operate than dual knobs. Scald controls should be installed as well. Low-flow or dual-flush commodes can be installed for water efficiency and “comfort height” models are two inches higher than traditional models. For faucets, showers and commodes look for the EPA WaterSense label which ensures minimal water use and low-flow fixtures. Grab bars can be installed in showers, above existing tubs and by commodes. For maximum strength, add wood blocking inside the walls.
Other features would be a low-noise, high air-flow exhaust fan to ensure water vapor is moved to the exterior and mold risk is minimized. Some models have motion sensors, are on timers, humidistats that turn on the fan when moisture occurs, or can be switched with the overhead light. Look for ENERGY STAR models. For bathrooms, kitchens and laundries look for non-skid flooring such as natural linoleum (it has anti-bacterial properties), cork (rapidly renewable), matte-finish or textured tile (available with recycled content.) Clear floor space for a wheelchair turning radius is 60 inch diameter. Counters and backsplashes should to be easy to clean; 34 inches high for wheelchair accessibility (in lieu of 36 inches) and contrasting counter edge details are helpful for the sight-impaired. Wall-hung sinks are fitted with pipe insulation to avoid scalding seated knees. Energy efficient and bright lighting is essential, including inside the shower. Again look for ENERGY STAR-rated fixtures, and compact fluorescent (CFL) or light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs rated for damp areas.
Kitchens can be made more safe and accessible with several design features, whether building new or upgrading. Amenities include having a knee space under a counter to accommodate a wheelchair or seated cook. Counters are lower (34 inches, in lieu of 36 inches.) Cabinets and counters should be easy to clean, and have minimal joints or grout lines, and contrasting edges at counters are helpful. Upper cabinets can have glass to help memory-or sight-impairment and they should be hung three inches lower than regular height for easy reach. Cabinetry options include pre-fab from sustainably-harvested wood, formaldehyde-free, low-emitting materials and salvaged wood. Wire pull handles are easier to use than knobs. Convenient storage includes roll-out shelf drawers, pull-out pantry shelving (a chef's pantry) and lazy susans. A side-by side ENERGY STAR refrigerator and wall-mount oven provide easy access. ENERGY STAR accessible dishwashers for lower counters are readily available as well. Raise-and-lower, light-up cook tops and large, easy read controls are helpful. Basically rules of thumb are safety, minimal effort and bending, ease of use and comfort. Exhausts should be down-draft or hoods venting to the exterior to rapidly remove odors and water vapor.
Situate your home near your vehicle parking space, or near public transportation and amenities, or a car share program, or accessible bike storage. Create on-grade accessible storage near an outlet for an electric scooter. Have minimal steps (with handrails) and a wide, level path to front door from parking or the sidewalk. Install bright path and flood-lighting on motion or photo-cells. The front entry should have a bright porch light with a covered entry with door thresholds no higher than ½ inch. Low-maintenance exterior finishes include brick and recycled-content fiber-cement board siding or panels. Install low maintenance and native plantings. If a wheelchair ramp is required it will be 36 inches wide with a slope of 12 inches of run to one inch of rise. A front door 24 inches up from a sidewalk requires a 24 foot long ramp. Add handrails on both sides.
These are some low-impact features that can increase a home’s accessibility whether designing from the ground up or remodeling your current one. For professional design advice seek out a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS).
For more information on green healthy homes visit www.buildgreen411.com or call the Regional Green Building Hotline 503-823-5431.