Design for the future

Age-in-place building allows residents to remain at home as they grow older
Sunday, November 7, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:23 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

After months of research, planning and splitting hairs with their builder, the Clarks have built what they hope is their last home.

The fact that no visitor in two years has noticed the painstaking attention to detail in the house doesn’t bother them. They see it as a sign that they did things right.

The Clarks built their home according to the principles of “age-in-place” housing, which allow the occupants of a house to continue living there as they age, even if they’re physically impaired later in life.

“Our goal in the long haul is to be able to stay here as long as we can,” said Mike Clark, who is 62. His wife, Colleen, is 58.

In many parts of an age-in-place house, what is barely noticeable now becomes crucial later.

For example, until the Clarks point it out, visitors don’t notice that from the sidewalk to the porch to the garage and throughout the house, all surfaces are level—not a threshold in sight.

Although Columbia is touted as one of the country’s best places to retire, it hasn’t quite caught up with communities in Arizona and Florida, which have large retiree populations and routinely employ the design aspects of age-in-place, said Dan Kliephermes, the Clarks’ builder.

But that could be changing.

“The big bell curve of baby boomers is happening now,” Kliephermes said.

Kliephermes is the first of Missouri’s certified age-in-place specialists, a designation granted by the National Association of Home Builders.

He is also the first of five Missouri builders to complete the program on building, marketing and client counseling, all issues specific to this style of building.

Kliephermes believes the demand for age-in-place housing will increase as awareness and marketing accelerate and as people become more comfortable with the idea of preparing for old age while they’re still young.

Until then, homeowners will continue to find themselves facing the much greater expense of remodeling a house to age in place, he said.

Kliephermes talked about a house he’s remodeling to include many of the same features of the Clarks’ house.

The difference in difficulty and expense is enormous, he said. A feature like a wider doorway for wheelchairs can cost next to nothing extra if it’s part of the original building plan.

“You’re talking minimal expense,” he said.

On the other hand, raising a garage floor to make it flush with a doorway can mean losing headroom so that certain vehicles can no longer fit inside. Such expenses can add thousands to the cost of remodeling, Kliephermes said.

“Planning is the main issue” in keeping costs under control, he said.

The house the Clarks built

Inside the Clarks’ house in the Cherry Hill subdivision, bright-white light switches stand out against the dark tan walls, in case someone’s eyesight begins to fail. The gray soapdish mounted on the yellow wall in the master bath shower stands out sharply against the shower tiles.

“Mike has glaucoma,” Colleen Clark said. “Hopefully his eyes won’t deteriorate, but if they ever did, seeing differences in color would be important.”

Other modifications have been made in the master bath so if either of the Clarks ends up in a wheelchair, using the shower won’t become an ordeal. The entrance to the shower is flush with the floor and wide enough for a wheelchair and a helper.

The toilet is four inches taller than standard size, which is easier for someone in a wheelchair to use. The faucet on the sink, like all others in the house, is operated by a single lever. That’s because a simple push is easier than twisting or turning motions for a person with arthritis or limited mobility due to stroke.

Similarly, all doors in the house open with a handle instead of the standard knob.

Some of the most important details are invisible. Behind the bathroom walls lie reinforcement beams three feet from the floor that allow for easy installation of handrails. If these beams weren’t there, the walls would have to be completely removed and replaced to install the beams.

“Most people who come in don’t have any idea,” Mike Clark said. “The people that we’ve talked to about it all seem surprised that we’ve thought ahead.”

Glenn McElroy, whose house Kliephermes is remodeling to create a living space for his mother, said he would consider age-in-place design if he and his wife ever decide to build a new home.

Kliephermes said he is in the process of replacing a spiral staircase with an elevator for McElroy’s mother, who uses a walker. The bathroom will be gutted and completely redone to add handrails, and a no-threshold shower will replace the tub.

The process, which began earlier this month, will last through the end of the year, McElroy said. He and his wife, Jan, both work out of the home, and are prepared for inconvenience through the holidays.

“There’s the general messiness that goes along with gutting rooms and finding a place for all that stuff to go in the meantime,” he said. “We’ll have to put up with jackhammers and construction and all that, but we see it as a means to an end.”

The experience has already left an impression on Glenn McElroy.

“When you go through it for someone else, you’re a lot more sensitive to the idea” of building with forethought, he said.

Often the most difficult part of the process is broaching the subject with clients, Kliperhermes said. Active, healthy baby boomers are reluctant to think about future disabilities, let alone design homes around them.

So, he said, he’s more likely to suggest universal housing design to clients who are 55 to 60 than those closer to their 70s. And he often has to bring up the idea more than once because people tend to resist or dismiss it at first mention.

“It’s so difficult to try and get people to do anything,” Kliephermes said. “They have to be in a wheelchair or dying before they make those decisions.”

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