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Houses adapt to aging; Design: New, flexible homes can be converted as a family grows, or diminishes.


Can your current home accommodate your needs as you age and gradually need assistance with the activities of daily living? Could your home be easily converted to suit single living, family life or the retirement years?

There is a growing movement in the housing industry to design adaptable housing to meet changing family configurations throughout one's life. It's called Universal Design in the United States, FlexHousing in Canada and Lifetime Homes in England. Whether used in single homes, apartments or condominiums, Universal Design is a philosophy that emphasizes flexible, accessible and affordable housing for all ages and abilities.

To understand the concepts, let's tour a prototype LifeStages home designed by Sandy Fennell of Devereaux & Associates in McLean, Va. A sidewalk leads to an entryway, which glows from a skylight, glass cupola and two sets of remote-controlled sidelights. There are no steps, and the double doorway's half-inch beveled threshold makes stepping or rolling a wheelchair into the house easy.

The main rooms of the house can be entered from a gallery that extends the length of the house. There are generous room entrances and extra-wide corridors to accommodate wheelchairs. Doors have easily accessed levers instead of knobs. Rooms with heavy traffic have hardwood floors with dark and light border accents that provide visual contrast for people with low vision.

The 22-feet-by-13-feet living area contains a low, open fireplace operable by remote control. A large dining room is adjacent to the living area; there is a family room and two bedrooms on the other side of the kitchen that can be used for entertaining or as guest rooms.

The kitchen's breakfast nook is considered a "dual activity area," with a wheelchair-accessible desk and adjustable-height cabinetry. The room also has an adjustable-height sink, a 36-inch-high island, and a 42-inch-high dishwasher for someone who has trouble bending or needs to work in a seated position.

The master bedroom suite contains a kitchen, his-and-her bathrooms, and a separate den or office. The area can act as an independent apartment if the owners are too ill or disabled to navigate the rest of the house. At the other end of the house, two secondary bedrooms can be combined to create a caregiver suite with a kitchenette and bath.

Another sample home has three levels designed to be reconverted as needed throughout the owner's life. The basement and attic floors can be separate units or linked to the main floor by stairways.

For a young single professional, the basement could be a workout gym or cash-generating apartment. Once this single marries and has children, the basement could be converted to a laundry room, playroom or separate unit to house a nanny.

As the years roll on, the attic room could change from a home office to a separate apartment for Grandma. When the owners retire, they can move to the basement apartment while the grandchildren live upstairs, perhaps paying rent to subsidize the owner's retirement.

Flexible housing makes for sensible design in general. The 5 feet of extra space needed on either side of a bed for a wheelchair eases bed-making for all.

Locating the laundry room on the ground floor or the same floor as the master bedroom is practical. Easily altered, open-space rooms lend an airy, spacious feel to daily living.

Pub Date: 02/27/00

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