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Future-Proof Your Home for Your Golden Years with Universal Design

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

universal design features in dream homes

If you’re living in your dream home today and plan to remain there through your retirement years, you want a place you can not just live in but live comfortably for life.

Adding universal design amenities to your home makes it future-proof, transforming it in ways you may not have thought of today — but that we know you’ll appreciate tomorrow

Universal design (also known as barrier-free design) can make your home safe and accessible, no matter your age or physical ability. Universal design is broader than you might first guess. It’s more than just adding a ramp to your front door or installing a grab bar in the bathtub. Universal design isn’t always visible, and that’s the beautiful functionality of it!

Design Your Home With Your Future in Mind

If you have the opportunity to do so, the best time to master-plan the long-term use of your home is during the planning stage for a new home or a renovation or addition.

Typically, it’s usually much less expensive to install aging-in-place features during a larger project.

Implementing universal design can also be the inspiration for a remodel or addition. In either case, now is often better than later. First, it causes much less anxiety to have everything in place before the features are needed — or in the case of a crisis. Crisis-driven improvements can look like a hospital rather than a home and decrease, rather than increase, the value of your home. (Picture a stainless-steel handrail bolted to the front porch or shower wall.)

If you wait to add these design features until they’re needed, it may be a point of contention. While one side may recognize the aging family member’s need, the other person may not think it’s worth the bother. Don’t burden your family members with these decisions. If you intend to grow much older in your home, set the stage now.

Aging in Place Vs. Downsizing or Moving

Senior adults sharing homes with their adult children

Our elders have a wealth of knowledge that can go to waste if not shared within a community. This can be the fault of outdated zoning and home valuations that can force a separation between young families and retirees. Modern zoning in urban environments and Main Street redevelopments are solving this problem on the municipal side.

To provide workforce housing, many municipalities are allowing the addition of ADUs or Accessory Dwelling Units. ADUs are used in several ways, including as a rental to supplement retirement or for older family members to move in to allow the younger family members to live in the primary residence.

We’re seeing this happen more and more and think it’s a great way to spread the housing expense over more people’s budgets while keeping families together — yet still offering some separation. Also, downsizing gives one the ability to pull equity from the property to supplement retirement, and that’s a practical option with more people struggling to save enough for retirement.

Universal Design and Sustainability Improvements

Our clients are building or rebuilding “lifetime homes,” meaning they’re making sure their home evolves to meet their needs. This is often accomplished with multi-use spaces by adding infrastructure for aging-in-place features and greater sustainability.

Multi-use spaces are rooms that can evolve from a teen’s suite to one that houses a live-in assistant — or transform from a nursery to a home office. The infrastructure for aging in place includes blocking for future grab bars and hoists and stacked closets that can easily retrofit an elevator.

A significant factor in one’s ability to age in place is stabilizing the expenses of homeownership. Built-in sustainability can be critical. Sustainability is multifaceted and includes features to lower the cost of ownership, including a focus on indoor air quality. Using non-wood exteriors helps reduce future maintenance costs, and there are many options on the market to replace wood windows, siding and trim. They won’t compromise design and will eliminate concerns such as fire, insects and rot.

Multi-use spaces are rooms that can evolve from a teen’s suite to one that houses a live-in assistant — or transform from a nursery to a home office.

A focus on the building envelope and insulation will help manage water infiltration as bulk water and water vapor while decreasing energy costs. Optimal indoor air quality starts with the building envelope and ends with properly designed and installed HVAC and filtration. A pro tip: Don’t have your HVAC installer design the system. It’s a rare installer that will properly size and install HVAC equipment and very few understand the V in HVAC — ventilation. Instead of the installer, consider an HVAC designer or mechanical engineer. It will cost more upfront, but it should provide savings each month after that.

While we haven’t seen major improvements in universal design innovations, we have seen more acceptance of the infrastructure. The market is now offering more attractive grab bars that are easy to hide within the confines of good design. Lever-door hardware has become the norm, as have open floor plans and wider doors. And there’s a growing preference for curbless or roll-in showers. Today, it’s much easier to implement aging in place and do it by design.

Age-In-Place Design Features

There are a variety of ways you can future-proof your home, so you’re more comfortable both today and tomorrow:

  1. Retrofit automatic lighting controls. Lighting can be set dawn to dusk for security and visibility outdoors and dusk to midnight for visibility indoors. These controls cost about $150 per switch and can be installed by a licensed electrician or automation expert.

  2. Add lever-style doors and plumbing hardware for long-term accessibility. Door hardware can cost $100 or more be installed by a handyman. A licensed electrician can install these plumbing fixtures for about $350.

  3. Incorporate drawers behind doors and optimize lower-cabinet storage. This will help you not depend on harder-to-reach upper cabinets. Cabinet retrofits can start at $1,500 and should be done by a custom cabinet maker.

  4. Install blocking behind drywall to receive grab bars in all wet locations.  The optimal time to do this is during new construction or a remodel, as any extra expense could be minimal.

  5. Consider a lower-height kitchen island and counter-tops. A lifetime home could include these features which will make for easier access if you or a family member use a wheelchair. This is another function-focused design change that’s ideal to incorporate early on in a larger home renovation or new-build project.

What Universal Design Changes Will Work in Your Home?

Before you add universal design changes to your home, first consider your entire property’s true viability before deciding if the investment is worthwhile. For example, if your home is high up on a hill or down a steep street — or has multiple staircases or narrow hallways — moving to a new home may be the best option for you.

If you’re interested in talking with our team about universal design features you might add to your home or new construction project, please reach out to us.

Written by Bryan Jones and Frank Wickstead

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