High-Access Homes

Tallahassee Families Are Modifying Their Homes, Or Designing New Ones, With an Eye Toward Making Them More Accessible for Seniors Or People With Disabilities

When Mary and Vince Codrick were thinking about building a home off Chaires Cross Road, they knew they wanted something that was pet-friendly, kid-friendly and elder-friendly. They wanted a house that would easily accommodate their two dogs, teenage daughter and young son, and Mary Codrick’s mother, 74-year-old Leah Yates.

Yates had her own four-bedroom home in Swift Creek, but after her husband died in 2007, she and Mary agreed it would be a good idea for her to move in with the Codricks. The family worked with Myddleton Parker Builders to design and build their spacious stone and brick home, and they put in special touches that would make it easier for Yates to get around. She had been in a car accident years ago that left her with lingering back and spinal cord injuries. She could walk, but her health was not what it had been prior to the accident.

Yates’ bedroom is on the first floor, so she doesn’t have to go up and down stairs, and her bathroom was designed with a walk-in shower that is wheelchair-accessible. All the doors are wide enough for her to navigate through them easily in a wheelchair. Those features became especially useful after she fell in April, broke her hip and left arm, and became temporarily wheelchair-bound.

“You have no idea what a good thing it was to be accessible to my shower,” Yates said.

Families like the Codricks, who want homes that make it easy to age in place, are becoming more and more common these days, according to local and national contractors and architects.

“I think most older people would much prefer to stay in their own homes as long as they can, and … if we were to make homes more accessible, more people could stay in their homes longer and they would have less cost than moving to long-term care facilities,” said Ivan Johnson, the principal architect at the Tallahassee architectural firm Johnson Peterson. “It’s much more affordable to adapt one’s home rather than to move to a long-term care facility.”

One sign that accessible homes are becoming more popular is the increased demand among contractors and others to become Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists (CAPS). In 2002, after considerable discussion and planning, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) added a course that contractors, designers and others can take to become CAPS. The course offers instruction on the challenges people face as they age, as well as practical design measures that can be implemented in people’s homes to ensure that their homes continue to meet their needs. According to the association, the CAPS designation is one of the top two fastest-growing designations it offers, second only to Certified Green Professional.

There are 1,911 active CAPS nationwide, and 143 in Florida, according to the NAHB Remodelers president, Therese Crahan. Laurie Ashlie, who earned her CAPS designation two years ago and works as a custom home builder for Design Point Homes, says she thinks people are more aware of universal design elements that can make homes more accessible for seniors or those with disabilities.

“I think that people are becoming a little bit more educated about that and also thinking about the future more,” she said. “They’re thinking about, down the line, are they going to need it for themselves, or are they going to possibly be a caregiver for their parents?”

John Parker, of Myddleton Parker Builders, says he has a lot of people asking questions about how they can design their homes to make sure they can live comfortably in them as they age.

“There are a lot of baby boomers who are interested in staying in their house long-term,” he noted. “Maybe they’re not going all out, but they’re allowing the wider doors and the areas in the bathroom where they can have full-pivot space.”

Designing a house that is accessible applies to both older people and people with disabilities. The “Extreme Makeover” home that Myddleton Parker constructed earlier this year for Tallahassee’s Kadzis family included certain design elements to make things easier for one of the daughters, who is blind.

“The hallways are wider and everything is designed in straight lines,” Parker said. “When she gets out of her room, she can walk to the kitchen by counting the number of steps.” The house was also constructed with minimal steps to help reduce the likelihood of a fall.

The Origins of Universal Design
When you talk to builders about making homes more accessible, you often hear the term “universal design” thrown around. Universal design refers to an approach to design that focuses on creating products and buildings that everyone can use, regardless of age or abilities. The term was coined by the late Ron Mace, an architect who spent his adult life in a wheelchair after suffering a debilitating bout with polio. Mace argued that everyone becomes disabled as they age and lose the capabilities, whether mental or physical, that they once had.

“We tend to discount people who are less than what we popularly consider to be normal,” he stated in a lecture given at the first international conference on universal design in 1998. “To be normal is to be perfect, capable, competent and independent. Unfortunately, designers in our society also mistakenly assume that everyone fits this definition of normal. This just is not the case.”

The principles of universal design, as stated on North Carolina State University’s Center for Universal Design Web site, include concepts such as flexibility in use. Flexibility in use means making sure that whatever you design is easily usable by people of varying abilities, whether they are right-handed or left-handed, have visual impairment or 20/20 eyesight, use wheelchairs or walk without the aid of a walker. Universal design also is supposed to be as simple and intuitive as possible, as well as visually appealing.

Today, universal design principles are incorporated into items such as lever door handles and sink hardware, and in controls for appliances like ovens and washing machines.


Making Universal Design Work for You

Johnson had a few tips to offer on designing a home that is amenable to aging in place. He noted that it’s important to pay attention to the entry to the house. Ideally, the house should be designed without steps or steep inclines, he said, adding that “I would design a new home for someone of that age on one level. In a very few years, they’re going to wish they had the master bedroom on the ground level instead of on the second level.”

In addition, he said he would suggest floating counters in the kitchen, making it possible for a person to pull up to the counter in a wheelchair. He also recommends designing at least one bathroom that is wheelchair-accessible, and either installing a grab bar near the toilet or installing dead wood — an extra wood stud behind the wall used to anchor screws — next to the toilet to make it easy to screw in a grab bar, should it be needed in the future.

Johnson said he would definitely use lever handles on the doors, since they are easier to open than typical doorknobs. The height of light switches and thermostats also is an important consideration, as they may need to be low enough that they would be accessible to those in wheelchairs. In the garage, there should to be adequate space to get in and out of car doors, and it’s also good to have a covered walkway over the most common entrance so there is always a dry pathway to the house, regardless of the weather.

“The method of opening windows might be considered,” he said. “In these days of high energy prices, sometimes on a spring day or a fall day, it’s wonderful to flush out the house with fresh air. If there’s a difficult operator, you eliminate that option.”

John Birge, principal architect at RDG Planning and Design, has created designs for the apartments and homes at Westcott Lakes, an active living community for senior citizens now in the planning stages. He said that with those designs, he paid special attention to details in the entrances, hallways, kitchens and bathrooms.

Like Johnson, he said it’s a good idea to avoid steps leading up to entryways. With the housing at Westcott Lakes, he is envisioning lighted doorbells, 3-foot-wide doors and adequate lighting to illuminate all entryways.

In the kitchen, Birge says it’s important to have front-mounted controls for ovens, and ambient lighting and matte counter finishes to reduce glare. Lazy Susans in corner cabinets make finding and reaching for items easier.

In the bathrooms, spacious walk-in showers make it easy for someone to enter in a wheelchair if necessary. Installing dead wood inside the wall makes it easy to add a grab bar, even if it isn’t needed right away.


Aging with Sensitivity

Aging is rarely an easy thing to face, experts say, but it’s still important to plan for the future.

“I think most people probably, when they evaluate who they are and what they’re doing, (think) they’re at least 10 years younger than their actual physical age,” Birge said. “I think at all age brackets, people think they can do more than they can. The issue is, they can do it, but there is risk attached to that.”

Birge noted that it’s important for people to think about what is best for them as they age and to balance the need for independence with the need for social contact.

“It’s proven that it’s more important to be socially connected with other people as opposed to living in a home for a long time if it disconnects you from the outside world,” he said. “There becomes a time when the idea of a universal design becomes contrary to the goal of having a quality life.”

Still, with that caveat in mind, designing your home to be accessible can certainly make things easier as people get older and help reduce the number of preventable accidents.

“The big thing is planning,” builder Parker said. “It’s good to sit down with a consultant and discuss all the possibilities.”

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