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Dignity and Design—The Aesthetics of Aging in Place

Every homebuyer wants and needs a comfortable home, safe for family and friends—but nothing that looks institutional. Quality and lasting value, especially for future resale, are critical. Every buyer wants a home that will last their family’s needs, now and in the future. A home to be proud of.

Home builders have mistakenly been led to believe that designing for all persons means building single-story homes with grab bars and wider doorways. Those misunderstandings have resulted in designs that look and feel institutional. These efforts are far from enough to make a home truly safe.

The key to selling a home is anticipating everything a buyer could want, even when they do not yet know they need it. In this article, we will explore both what homebuyers want, with a few suggestions about products and features, and more importantly, what they really need to be physically safe at home.

A comfortable home, safe for family and friends

Most buyers think of comfort as just the heating and cooling systems in their home. But true comfort is so much more than this. When a person says, “This space feels very comfortable,” how much of that statement is a rapid, subconscious evaluation of their own physical safety in the home? They may not be able to explain why it is comfortable—they just like it.

How do builders help a person be comfortable and safe? Is this a selling point?

Lasting beauty, timeless design, low maintenance, energy saving—these are all phrases builders use to entice buyers. If your sales phrases work, keep using them. The key now is to start talking about how buyers’ new homes will allow their family and friends to visit, including those with different or changing abilities.

Ask any of your buyers if they want the latest in hospital design in their home. They will most likely turn around and walk out the door. Will they like a stainless steel grab bar in the shower? Probably not.

However, subtle design choices can make a home more accessible for people with limited abilities. What if you showed your buyer a color-coordinated, stylish towel bar with an integral lower rod to hang a towel or washcloth? Your buyer is imagining how your suggestion will look in the home, but we in the industry know that you are providing a towel bar that is beautiful, functional and designed to support a minimum of 250 pounds pull force in any direction. You have now provided a safety device that will meet their needs, without talking about their age. You are now making money selling home safety.

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Selling for the long term

Thanks to experience, innovation and technology, homes are now built to last longer than ever before. Movements in energy conservation and green building practices, along with increased material durability have all reduced environmental impacts and lowered maintenance efforts and costs. Working with experts in these fields have certainly improved our nation’s housing stock.

But what about the human element? How do we build homes that help us live longer in our homes? A 2012 AARP study found that almost 90% of seniors intend to continue living in their current home. This important study and others indicate that seniors, and perhaps all homebuyers, want and need homes that will allow them to live comfortably for years to come. How has the industry begun to respond to this new information?

A new movement in both home building and remodeling has been launched. Created by industry experts, it involves professionals who understand how a human interacts with the home and how a home can be more accessible, comfortable and safe. The medical community is vital in understanding how design and product choices affect the human experience in the home. Through advanced education and consumer awareness, we now have the information necessary to build homes that both last longer than ever before and allow the buyer to live in the home longer.

The extra years a homeowner spends in his or her own home can have a powerful impact on well-being and quality of life, in addition to financial stability. The median cost of a room in an assisted living facility in Colorado is $48,000 per year, according to Genworth. In the Denver area, the cost is over $56,000. A nursing home stay can cost between $94,000 and $108,000 per year.

All homeowners want to be proud of their home. They want to show off their choice of a dream home, designed around their unique style and tastes. We already know that a home is probably the single largest financial investment they will ever make. Why not introduce the concept (think selling point) of a home that will allow their friends and family to visit, even if some of them have unique challenges?

Can safe design be attractive?

What interesting and beautiful design elements can they show off that are also safe? How about two handrails on every stairway with LED lights embedded under the rail that look beautiful and balance the design of the stairway? In showers, consider including a beautiful contrasting color accent stripe about 60 inches above the floor, which provides a reference for wall proximity and establishes a horizontal reference for balance. For countertops in both the kitchen and bath, use matte, honed or leathered finishes that bring out the beauty of the materials and prevent bright light from creating a dangerous reflection.

Be mindful of floor color changes on the same level—a high contrast will make one area look like a different level. We now understand that by utilizing light reflectance values, we can create low contrast changes between areas and increase contrast changes to identify elevation changes, such as stairs. Utilizing the color values can reduce fall risks in the home.

Look outside building community for team members

We cannot do everything ourselves; we need to expand our interprofessional teams. The typical team has always included developers, architects, builders, trade contractors and inspectors. This proven team has created a nation of quality housing. Now is the time to expand your teams to include experts in the fields of medical, senior and child safety. Only as a complete team can we transform our nation’s housing stock into homes that are truly accessible, comfortable and safe for everyone, regardless of their current or future needs or age.

Our founding fathers created a system that President Abraham Lincoln later phrased as “of the people, by the people and for the people.” America leads the world in human compassion efforts. After World War II, we began a focus on the needs of our injured veterans, and the need continues today. Our efforts toward civil rights for everyone regardless of race, nationality, color, gender, age and religion became part of our collective consciousness. In the 1960s, our youth took a stand and made their voices heard. The next efforts, energy and recycling, were somewhat accepted as beneficial to society and the planet. Now it is time morally, politically and economically to move forward in improving accessibility and safety for every home.

Recognizing and accepting this responsibility and the profound effect it has on our homebuyers is part of a movement, created and welcomed by the building community. The medical costs alone of home falls are rapidly approaching $60 billion. Our collective goal is to reduce those falls by 50% by the year 2028 with safer designs and products. Just imagine in 10 years reducing the costs of falls by billions, improving quality of life for all homebuyers, all the while increasing our sales based on the value of home safety.

What’s in it for builders?

Simple—more business. If you can meet that ultimate pinnacle of matching a buyer’s wants and needs with your product, you have a sale. If you can do that while making homes safer for the occupants and visitors, now you have done your best.

What’s the next step?

Education. Learn what changes need to be implemented immediately. Learn how safety can create a significant marketing advantage for your business. Make changes to your designs and products today that make a lasting difference.


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