Contributed by, Patsy Welch via AgeinPlace.com
In graduate school, while specializing in sustainable architecture, my elderly parents began to have physical difficulties, and I began making frequent trips to Tennessee to aid in their care. I was surprised to see how the townhouse that had served them so well for 25 years now seemed to be an environment fraught with hazards.
Changes in floor surfaces, a steep stairway, a dark narrow hallway, two cramped bathrooms, all increased their risk of tripping and falling. So in school working on my thesis, I began to explore ways to design a home that would be both energy efficient and could also easily adapt to one’s needs throughout a lifetime.
Perhaps, I thought, by combining the best of several design movements, universal design, sustainability, and the small house movement, plus adding flexibility and low maintenance, I could positively affect one’s quality of life throughout the aging process.
Flexibility in the design was a corner stone in this effort. Low maintenance, including durability – building to last 100 years – and energy efficiency would certainly help elderly persons on fixed income stay in their homes, spending less on repairs and energy, not to mention lessening the risk of injury in dealing with repairs and maintenance.
Designed for everyone
Since I wanted to design the Flexhouse for everyone, no matter their living situation or physical abilities, this presented a problem. Trying to keep the cost down, I could not afford an elevator, so I put in 3 closets stacked on each other, one on each floor, that conceal a pre-wired, regulation elevator shaft. The floors of the closets are easy to remove to install an elevator in the future if needed.
The universal design elements also include:
3′ wide doorways and enough space in hallways to make turns in a wheel chair
No changes in floor elevations, including no interior thresholds, for ease in wheelchair or walker usage and to prevent tripping.
Kitchen cabinets and light switches are a bit lower and outlets a bit higher
Bathrooms also have enough space to turn around in a wheel chair, and the showers are “roll in”.
Walls are reinforced by putting plywood between studs at appropriate levels for future installation of grab bars.
All doors and drawers have handles instead of knobs.
The garage is wider for ease in getting in and out of a car or a wheel chair van.
The stairs leading to the front door as well as the interior stairs have 6″ risers instead of the usual 7 1/2″, which are kinder to your joints as you age.
All of these elements make life easier for short people, tall people, and children. As well as, for people with various physical abilities. In other words, everyone benefits.
Preparing for possibilities
Flexibility in the design overlaps with the universal design elements making movement easier for people using a wheel chair, cane or a walker. Having a more open design plan lets spaces expand easily as needed and permits change in the room’s activity as the number of inhabitants evolves over the years.
For example, the living room has glass French doors that open onto a screened porch, doubling the living room space in nice weather. A family room that opens into the dining room lets you have a dinner with 25 guests, by extending tables into the living room if necessary.
Instead of having a separate powder room for guests, the master bathroom is designed so that the toilet area can be closed off with pocket doors for privacy, separating it from the master bath for guests.
Instead of having 3 smaller bedrooms, there is a large master bedroom on the first floor and a second large bedroom plus a queen sized alcove bed on the second floor.
The second floor of the Flexhouse is designed to easily convert into an independent apartment for a caregiver or an adult child. A very large closet with a plumbing wall in the bedroom is sized to easily convert into a kitchen. The bedroom is large enough to become a living room/dining room and down the hall an alcove bed can serve as bedroom. This 2nd floor could even become a short term rental apartment.
Sustainable and low maintenance features
The sustainability features of the Flexhouse will save residents from 60% – 80% on energy costs compared to traditional heating and cooling solutions helping stretch fixed retirement income.
A southern wall of two rows of large triple pane windows guides sunlight to a two story interior wall filled with phase change material called BioPCM that stores heat from the sun then releases it at night.
A thermally isolated room in the basement, much like a root cellar, with a year round temperature of 55-65 degrees, lets outside air travel through its length cooling or heating the air before it enters the HVAC system.
In addition, I decided to make this a “healthy house.” The average American spends 90% of his or her time indoors, where pollutants run 2-5 times higher than outdoors, aggravating the millions of Americans who suffer from asthma and allergies.
A highly efficient air filter removes pollen, dust mites, mold spores, pet dander and cigarette smoke. Great care was taken in choosing building materials -paints, glues and varnishes, flooring and carpeting – that do not emit toxins such as formaldehyde. The clean air quality and sustainable design elements helped the house achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification.
Finally, I designed the house to be easily maintained. The house is sided with fiber cement siding, that requires very little maintenance or painting. The triple pane windows are made of vinyl and need no painting, and all exterior doors are fiberglass. All of these very durable materials are easy to clean and will not warp, rot or attract insects. The grass and the brushes are drought tolerant and easy to grow.
Video of the Flexhouse:
Homes are almost always designed for a traditional couple with children. But, reality tells us that homes are lived in by a wide range of inhabitants including nontraditional couples with or without children, multi-generational families, singles, or singles with children.
They are short, heavy set, thin, tall, young, elderly, use walkers or wheelchairs, and come with a variety of physical abilities that also change over the years. The number of people living in a house as well as their needs naturally changes over the years as well.
It does not seem unreasonable to think that through design, a home such as the Flexhouse could accommodate all of its residents throughout life’s changing situations.
About Patsy Welch-
Patsy Welch is the founder of Welch Design, LLC, a residential design firm outside of Chicago. She specializes in aging in place and sustainability. You can visit her website at welchdesignllc.com.
*Podcast Bonus: Check out our own Kari Henley’s interview with AgeinPlace.com about expanding aging in place by home sharing with a compatible housemate.
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