Maybe you’re swooning over bird’s-eye-maple kitchen cabinets. Or in love with the idea of installing radiant heat underneath that concrete-floor pour you’re planning in your garage-turned-man-cave.
You’re not alone. House renovation fever is a familiar kind of insanity that is easy to get swept up into. And the pandemic, which meant that suddenly people are in their homes all the time, is driving a huge upswing in building and renovations. But if you’re a member of Generation X, you need to use some long-term thinking as you lay the plans for your castle: not only to guarantee good resale (should you sell it), but also to guarantee your comfort for the full length of your life (if you don’t).
After all, a full three-quarters of Americans over 50 (which might include you) say they want to live out their lives in their current residence, a decision called “aging in place.” So even if retirement feels a long way off, it’s worth thinking about ways to make your house livable for the long-haul now. Yes, now.
Take your cue from architects who are undertaking these renovations themselves, like Joanna Goodman, 46 years old and Vice President and Director of Interiors at Christopher Architecture & Interiors in Birmingham, Alabama. She’s been reworking the floor layout of her 1960s Tudor home “so that there’s an easier flow to get around,” she says, adding that it’s for her extended fam as well as her own future needs. “I have a sister who has MS, and it’s hard for her to move around when she comes to stay with us. We opened up the floor plan to help with circulation and converted the tiled kitchen to hardwoods.” (Tile floors are colder, and, well, harder, making them more dangerous in case of a slip and fall.) She also widened room openings on her first floor to make them more navigable, expanding them to 6 feet wide each.
What Goodman is doing in her own home mirrors what she does for clients. “Most of our clients are asking us to build their legacy home, forever home, retirement home, whatever the case may be. A lot of them are in perfectly good health,” she adds, but “we advise them to go ahead and think about aging in place. We call it universal design. It makes the space comfortable for everybody regardless of age or ability.”
Ahhh, universal design. Sounds so much less threatening than design for aging in place, yes? The point is, universal design helps people no matter what their age, from 9 years old to 90. So we asked the pros what to consider investing in in your home right now — so you can still be enjoying it 20 years later.
Install Lever Door Handles
Architects know that the littlest decisions can make a huge difference in your daily ease and frustration status. Case in point: swapping old door knobs out for lever handles. “Lever-type hardware is easier for more people to use than a round knob,” says Karen Kubey, architect and editor of the Aging in Place Guide for Building Owners. “There may be no cost difference [and it] might be as or more beautiful, so it feels like a no brainer.” The best part of a lever handle? “It doesn’t require grip strength,” says Charles Warren of Washington, D.C. firm Teass\Warren Architects. You can even open it with one hand — or a foot or an elbow — when you’re schlepping groceries and laundry.
Make An Easy-Access Bedroom
“It might [seem] pretty obvious,” Warren says, “but in almost all our new houses or major renovations we design a primary suite on the main living level to allow for folks to not have to go up and down stairs.
Have Power Showers
You know those infinity pools that break the internet every time they’re posted on Instagram? Bringing that clean-lined spa aesthetic into your bathroom is more than just pretty. “We do a lot of zero-entry showers, where the floor transitions straight into the shower — there’s no threshold,” Goodman says, which lessens your chance of tripping. (And an accompanying long, linear drain keeps the look sleek and the water corralled.) Other ideas for the bathroom of an octogenarian James Bond’s dreams? Double-door shower entries that are ultra-elegant while allowing wheelchairs in seamlessly, outfitted with a glorious steam shower (say it with us: “aaaaaah”). “Steam showers are very popular — it helps with joints and is very therapeutic,” says Goodman.
Swap in Functional Faucets
If the COVID era has you attempting to turn your faucets on with an elbow to minimize germ-spread, you already know why this is a good idea: lever-handled faucets, which can be operated with the back of your hand or wrist. But they help more than just germ containment. “We use levers in restrooms and kitchen faucets so you’re able to turn it off or on without a lot of strength,” Goodman says. While some architects and designers are installing voice-activated faucets that work with Siri, Alexa, and the like, Goodman is holding off on recommending those. “They can have some maintenance issues, so until they work out the tech, we try to use things that are the lowest maintenance possible.”
Level out your Floors
Preventing falls may be your number one concern as you age. “That’s the biggest physical health threat,” Karen says. “One in three Americans aged 65 and over falls each year.” One way to help is to banish lips and saddles between rooms where different floors meet, so you don’t have to step over a ledge as you move around your house. Warren agrees. “Avoid level changes and tall thresholds – don’t do any sunken living rooms. This is a tripping hazard!” Wheelchairs can have trouble going over tall thresholds, he says — something to keep in mind at your entry doors, too.
Think Tall in the Bathroom
And we’re not talking about the ceiling. “We often install toilets that are ADA height,” Warren says. “They’re a bit taller and easier to use.” The standard ADA toilet seat height is 17 to 19 inches off the floor, versus the more typical toilet height of 15 inches. “Also we give at least a 36-inch clearance around it to make sure there is maneuverability. If the toilet is in a narrow compartment, make sure to swing the door out!”
Add Blocking to the Walls
HGTV fans may get a kick out of this behind-the-scenes construction tip. “One easy and inexpensive strategy in a bathroom renovation is to install blocking in the walls where future grab bars might be installed — like in the shower, the tub and around the toilet,” Warren says. Um, what’s blocking? Blocking is done before the walls go in, installing “blocks” of wood between the studs (usually scraps from the 2x4s used to build the walls), in places where you might someday want to install items like grab bars that need to be able to handle a lot of weight.
Install Automatic Drapes
Some of the most megawatt luxury hotel rooms on earth are equipped with a Jetsons-worthy amenity: draperies you can open and shut at the push of a button. But it’s not just a luxury: reaching for blinds and yanking on their cords gets harder as you age. “We do motorized window treatments so [our clients] can hit a button and not have to worry about pulling drapery shut,” Goodman says, adding that Lutron is one of their go-to brands.
Go for the Down-Low Freeze
The next time you’re investing in a fridge for your kitchen, get one with side by side freezer and fridge compartments or bottom freezers in lieu of the traditional top freezer, Warren says. “If folks are in wheelchairs the upper freezer shelves can be hard to reach.”
Make Room for an Elevator
Sure, this is a bit of a #firstworldproblems tip. But if you’re in the process of building a Real Housewives of Wherever-worthy McMansion — or anything with stairs — consider splurging on space for an elevator. You don’t have to actually install one until you need it. “If we don’t put in an elevator right off, we build a closet with balloon construction which means they can easily add an elevator later — but in the interim, [the clients] use it as a closet,” Goodman says. Warren often recommends this move, because not only does it provide peace of mind for the future, but creates that all-too-rare perk: bountiful storage. And that’s a home amenity suited for all ages.
Next for X, sponsored by #disruptaging