With 78 million baby boomers beginning to retire, the stock of accessible housing with need to expand -- but to what? More 55+ retirement communities OR mixed use walk-able neighborhoods with a variety of housing styles, sizes and amenities? Hi-rise condos OR communities of tiny houses? Construction of new housing declined sharply as the real estate market collapsed in 2007 but when the market starts to recover, what trends will we see in housing being marketed to seniors?
First let's define accessible housing. The word "accessible" usually conjures up images of people in wheelchairs or with some mobility issue. However when used to describe housing, the term generally refers to housing which is designed to be functional for the people living there. Accessibility includes all the features in a home that allow every member of the family to perform all the functions anyone else performs. That would include entrances without steps, bathrooms large enough for everyone to move around in, showers and tubs that are not difficult to enter, wide doorways and hallways, and counter tops and cabinets that everyone can reach.
You'll also hear the terms universal design and multi-generational housing applied to accessibility. A house based on the concept of universal design will allow all members of the family and any visitors, young and old, to use all spaces comfortably, safely, and independently. Universal design extends beyond structural features like wider doorways and roll-in shower stalls to include appliances, household equipment, and even product packaging.
So what are some of the new housing models we're beginning to see and how do they fit into the concept of accessible housing for seniors? The most interesting to me are the tiny houses and the ADUs (accessory dwelling units). You might have already read about these ADUs which are being marketed to consumers as MEDCottages (aka Granny Pods) and prefab In-law units. The self-contained, prefab in-law unit ranges in size for 300 to 1800 square feet, includes features that support aging in place, and incorporates universal design along with electronic monitoring and medical care equipment options. All are pretty much built in a factory, prepared for on-site assembly, trucked to your location and set on a foundation.
FabCab is a timber-frame prefab In-law cottage with universal
An advantage to using a modular unit for an add-on apartment is that it can be disassembled into a few intact sections that can be easily relocated -- not really a viable option for a stick-framed addition.
Another entry into the ADU market is the MEDCottage, basically a mini mobile home that rents for about $2,000 a month. You can park one in your backyard, hook it up to your water and electricity and it becomes a free standing spare room for your elderly parents. The State of Virginia is so solidly behind this concept that the State government eased zoning restrictions so as to allow more of these units to be placed in neighborhood backyards.
The inventor of the MEDCottage, Rev. Kenneth Dupin, says that the MEDCottage was designed with a floor plan and technology that appeals to Americans' independent nature. The goal being to extend independence for people who otherwise would be placed in a nursing home. These ADUs are complete with a kitchen, bedroom and bathroom as well as options for advanced medical monitoring equipment. Technology includes: safety lighting along the floors, a lift that can move an immobile person to the bathroom, and monitoring systems that let you remotely check temperature and heart rate, among other things.
MEDCottage exterior MEDCottage interior view
So what are some of the benefits of ADUs? "From many angles, the ADU concept is a sound one," says Susan Duncan of the National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification at the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California. "An ADU occupies the same space as an apartment but makes it into a private, freestanding home. Privacy is something we all strive for. And families are happier because the TV can be as loud as you want without disturbing the grandkids doing homework."
As for the downside, since these prefab room additions are relatively new, we don't have sufficient cost data to compare this type of construction, delivery and installation against more conventionally built home additions. Also there is concern that with families being so busy today, the opportunity for the ADU resident to socialize will be limited unless careful planning is done to ensure adequate chances to be around other people. "It might seem a bit odd to park your loved one in a shed in the backyard," says Dupin. "Still, having the family nearby and maybe having grandchildren running in and out of the Cottage could potentially improve an elderly person's quality of life."
ADUs may not be for everyone but they will be a viable alternative and part of our housing choices in the future.
Next week: Trends in Housing Part 2:The Tiny House