How to Make Your house a Forever Home: From Door Levers to Blocking
You may have heard the term “Forever Home” tossed around by real estate agents and design magazines. But it can mean different things to different people.
In our architectural practice, our clients refer to a Forever Home as the house they’re creating for themselves to live in forever. These clients generally are toward the end of their careers, have climbed up a few rungs on the real estate ladder, and see the house as a reward for their life’s work.
I can’t tell you how much fun it is to sit around the table, with starry-eyed clients behaving like young children on Christmas morning, saying things like, “I’m finally getting the spa bathroom I’ve always wanted.” These homes are the stuff of dreams for our clients, and they intend to live in them for as long as possible.
But in order to accomplish that, these homes will need to be adaptable to accommodate their needs as they get older. But it seems like a cruel reality check to bring up the need for grab bars and elevated toilets - necessary provisions for stiff joints, poor balance and diminished eyesight. These types of important details usually are not the focus of their fantasies. More often than not, addressing this reality is left for a future meeting.
Let’s face it, grab bars in bathrooms aren't sexy. Nor are shower seats. But what if they could be sexy? Or at minimum, inconspicuous? (That’s the topic for my next column.) Our Forever Home clients have yet to show inspirational images of hospital rooms when describing their ideal master suite.
For me, this has provided a welcome challenge to rethink what a Forever Home should and can look like. In my practice, Forever Homes should have three important traits - adaptability, functionality and, most perhaps important, beautiful aesthetics.
When planning your next remodel, take a moment to consider a future where you are less mobile than your are today. Consider how you will get up and down the stairs, navigate the bathroom, and where you will sleep.
For these areas, we recommend reinforcing the inside of the walls by adding extra wood - what we in the architecture world call “blocking.” This blocking will provide secure areas that allow for the future addition of grab bars, providing something to bolt them onto.
Consider how you will move up and down stairs, and add the electrical wiring and reinforcement needed for a future stairlift. When building a new house, especially if there are multiple floors - three or more- you might want to include an elevator in the design.
Houses should be functional for all phases of life, especially for those unexpected events. Many of us have had sports accidents that have required knee surgery and crutches. A removable shower seat proves useful for post surgery recovery, as well as the bar on an adjustable handshower when it’s designed to bear weight. Both features would also be useful when aging parents come to visit, keeping our family connected to our lives while preventing falls.
Good design should be functional and good-looking. In the case of Forever Homes, we value items with multiple functions. It’s one thing to have a good-looking, matte-black grab bar. Why not install a beautiful towel bar that also doubles as a grab bar because it can support your weight? A feature designed for accessibility can become almost invisible.
Here are 12 other easy and inconspicuous features to consider for your next remodel or new home:
Add extra space to your floorplans: Think of it as breathing room. The extra space will make navigating a room with assistance easier. Doorways should be sized 30-inches wide, especially in the bathrooms where the extra space will allow walkers or a wheelchair to squeeze in. Not everyone has the space to do a full wheelchair-accessible bathroom, but a few extra square feet goes a long way.
Increase your lighting levels: Eyesight often starts to diminish as early as the 40’s. Design your house with extra layers of lighting. For example, use wall sconces and overhead lights in a hallway. Enable them to be adjusted separately with dimmers so you can adjust the lighting levels as needed. Bathrooms, hallways and kitchens are important areas to add extra lighting.
Change your door knobs to levers: Not only are they good looking. They also are easier to operate without gripping, which can be difficult for some people as they get older. Use pulls on kitchen cabinets because they’re easier to grip than knobs.
Consider no-slip flooring: Wood-floor finishes by companies like WOCA Denmark imitate the look and feel of unfinished wood, without sacrificing stain and wear resistance. Not only are they attractive, but the texture gives more traction and grip than floors treated with smooth polyurethane. In wet areas like bathrooms and kitchens, traction is especially important when selecting your next floor.
Splurge on a curbless shower and linear drain for your bathroom: Not only do they look good, but they are also easier to get in and out of, with no curb to step over.
Consider colors when selecting materials: Creating a contrast in color between the flooring material and the countertops makes it easier to locate the countertop’s edge for a person with diminished eyesight. Dark countertops look great with our wood interiors at The Sea Ranch, contrasting well with lighter wood or tile floors. (are you including photos?)
Put extra thought into your electrical plans: Place outlets in exposed, easily accessible places where you most commonly plug in your phone and other devices. At a desk or bedside table, consider locating the outlet above the surface rather than below. Place outlets next to the sofa and window seats. Opt rocker panels rather than toggle switches for your lights.
Prioritize safety in the kitchen: Because cuts and burns are common injuries in the kitchen, consider an environmentally friendly electric-induction cooktop that’s sure to win over the most devout gas-cooktop chef. The technology only heats the pans and the food, so the cooktop surface stays cool. They operate with magnets, so high-quality stainless cookware and cast iron will work on them. Also remember to add under-cabinet lights so you can see when you’re adding salt instead of sugar to your cookies.
Choose easy-to-open appliances: We used a Sub-Zero refrigerator on a past project that had such a tight seal that it took two hands to open. Opt for appliances with easy to grip handles, along with doors that don’t require too much effort to open.
Consider the location of appliances: When laying out your kitchen, place appliances higher to avoid the need to bend over. Wall ovens are preferable to ranges for this reason. Elevated dishwashers tend to look odd, but dish drawer units allow you to wash a half load in the easy-to-reach upper drawer and to use both drawers for a full load when you have guests over for dinner.
Put it on a pedestal: If you purchase a front-loading washer and dryer, splurge on a laundry pedestal - an accessory that goes underneath the washer and dryer that raise them off the floor by 12 to 16 inches. This allows you to load and unload the machine without bending, putting less strain on your back.
Add a finger groove under horizontal surfaces: When this is done on bar counters and tables, it can help people avoid falls because people tend to grab onto whatever is near them. An inconspicuous groove under the edge of a table will give you a little more to grab onto.
Chad DeWitt is the Creative Director at Oakland-based architecture collective, Framestudio. He is looking forward to relaxing on The Sea Ranch in a Forever Home of his own making. His dream design includes a wheelchair accessible zip line leading from his house to the bar at the Lodge. He remains optimistic about getting approval by the Association.
Photo Credits: Everlife Designs