Among the wellness trends identified in the American Institute of Architects’ most recent Home Design Survey is an increased focus on aging in place. Overall designs for the purpose of letting people remain in their homes as their physical needs change with age grew from 59% to 64% from 2022 to 2023, the survey reported. A quick call-out to architects around the country for their experience supported these findings. Their responses, shared by email, highlight how extensively this is showing up in their projects.
“We are seeing an increase in aging in place design considerations in several of our residential projects throughout the country,” comments Jaime Matheron, principal and senior architect at Dahlin in the San Francisco Bay Area. She adds, “Demographic factors point to an increasing number of homeowners who would like to age in place but recognize that to do so, their homes need to be able to adapt to changes in mobility that might occur over time.”
Architect Jenn Smith in Chattanooga, Tennessee is also seeing increased interest, she says, particularly for custom home clients building their forever residence.
Accessible design accounts for about a third of Seattle area architect Aaron D. Murphy’s annual revenues, he says. Universal design and aging in place have been a firm focus for the past 15 years, but he’s been seeing increased interest lately too. “The most common requests involve either the ‘forever home’ outlook, or multi-generational housing solutions. Whether you plan to get older in your own home, or you have a caretaker need for a parent, the design requests are pretty similar,” he notes. One observation Murphy makes is that his aging in place clients not only want accessible use of their homes, they also want low maintenance. “Clients don’t want to be painting houses and staining decks,” he declares.
Economic conditions play a role in increasing interest in aging in place, Matheron observes. “With rising interest rates and taxes, there is also an increased desire for homeowners to want to stay in their homes longer. This creates an opportunity to design with accessibility-enabling features (and future adaptations) that are so seamlessly integrated into the design that they don’t feel aesthetically different from any other home.”
“Accessibility is important in all types of home design, and we always look for ways to eliminate steps at entry and exit points when possible. In some cases, we also look for ways to provide easy future adaption of ramps or bars,” Matheron shares.
Creating barrier-free entries not only supports a household’s current and future needs, it makes it possible for a guest using a wheelchair or walker to spend time in your home with your family – a concept accessibility advocates call visitability. “Getting from the curb or car to the entry door without steps, and the ability to use a restroom on the main floor” is how Murphy describes it. The visitability conversation can often be easier for homeowners. “When we are able to ask our parents, ‘Don’t you want Sharon to be able to come over for Christmas? She has a (insert mobility device here – walker, wheelchair, etc.),’ this approach leads to more comfortable conversation, avoiding a defensive discussion about our own mortality,” he shares.
“The most common request in aging-in-place design is for single-level living, basically no stairs in the home,” Smith says, but on some lots, this isn’t possible. Then alternate plans need to be considered.
“The majority of initial design requests involve a primary bedroom on the main floor, larger master bath with a curbless (zero-threshold) shower, a bigger and better laundry room layout, and more useable space in the kitchen,” Murphy shares. Our existing housing stock is woefully unprepared to provide these spaces for our rapidly-aging society.
The gap between demand and availability is not only driving interest in home remodels, it’s also starting to show up in building codes, Matheron observes. “Starting in 2024, California code updates will mandate wider doorways in bedroom and bathroom suites,” she says.
Will Washington, Tennessee and other states follow? The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t apply to single family residences, but meeting the fast-growing need for accessible homes will likely drive faster change at the individual builder level, if not in statehouses.
Smith is already seeing this trend in her clientele. “It’s very easy to incorporate wider doors and hallways into a new construction home, but very difficult to retrofit later if it becomes necessary,” she points out.
The Tennessee architect is also seeing an increase in accessible bathroom requests. “Zero entry showers are common because it removes the tripping hazard when stepping into a walk-in shower.” Her clients also want grab bars and hand-held shower heads, along with a bench for sitting down. She’s siting toilets in the corner so grab bars can be mounted on the walls as another safety measure.
Making these age-friendly choices look stylish is the architect’s mandate; most homeowners want their primary bathrooms to feel like a resort spa, not a rehab hospital room. (Manufacturers have stepped up with more attractive accessibility products to support this trend.)
“Smart home technologies with voice control and remotes play a role in home accessibility and present a good opportunity for builders to offer these features as optional upgrades to buyers, making homes more customizable in general,” Matheron suggests.
Murphy’s clients are interested in smart home features that can improve the accessibility of their homes, the Washington architect comments. These include mobile operating window shades, automated door openers, AI level software applications related to heating, cooling and TV, and smart kitchen appliances (especially refrigerators, ovens and ranges), he says.
Smith is including smart outlets instead of standard versions to make items plugged into them app- or voice-controllable, she says.
Some accessibility considerations increase a project’s budget, especially when you’re having to add them later, as Smith noted. “When we are helping families understand the cost of an elevator in their home (at say $50,000) we are sure to compare it to the cost of a fall down the stairs, ER, surgery, rehab, possibly never coming home and paying $10,000/month for assisted living or a nursing home,” Murphy shares. “The options between proactively investing in your own successful future versus not doing anything paves the path to a loss of choice, independence, and autonomy in your later years.” That’s the highest cost of all.