How is an aging baby boomer generation changing the design of homes?

Baby boomers don't want to leave the nest.
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Baby boomers, or the 75 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, are getting older, with the first wave of boomers turning 65 in 2011. Baby boomers will have a very different sort of retirement, though. They're more likely to work longer, start a second career, volunteer or take classes than their parents' generation. And ­while previous generations headed for Florida and nursing homes, baby boomers want to stay put.

In a 2000 survey conducted by the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons), 71 percent of Americans aged 45 and older said that they "strongly agreed" that they wanted to stay in their homes. This phenomenon is known as aging in place, with familiar surroundings and objects replacing the institutional walls of a nursing home.


This very simple desire to stay in their own houses may change the way homes are designed. The home-building industry thinks that aging will be the second-biggest influen­ce on home design in the next few years, second only to finding enough skilled laborers to complete the work [source: NAHB]. While baby boomers don't want to move to a retirement home, they're aware that their home will need to accommodate the decreased mobility and ability that sometimes accompanies old age.

At the same time, boomers aren't ready for their house to look like a nursing home, even if they do already have aging parents living with them. Boomers want to plan for the possibility of being in a wheelchair without spending years in a home that looks like it was designed for a wheelchair. That's why so many baby boomers are embracing universal design, a design that allows function and aesthetics to coexist.

Universal design was developed by a wheelchair-bound architect who thought that buildings should be designed for everyone, regardless of ability or age. The concept has been around since the 1970s, but it has gained a crucial fan: the AARP. The AARP promotes universal design to its members, and as a result, 75 percent of contractors polled by the National Association of Home Builders report an increase in the number of requests for work related to aging in place [source: NAHB].

In this article, we'll take a look at the features of universal design, and how will they help baby boomers. But don't turn away just because you're not on the edge of retirement; universal design can benefit everyone. On the next page, we'll take a look at what a home with universal design looks like.


Universal Design Features

Stairless entryways and lever door handles provide easy access to everyone.
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Universal design is based on several concepts:

  • Equitable use: All people use the design features in the same way.
  • Flexibility in use: The feature can be adjusted depending on the user; for example, both right- and left-handed people could use it.
  • Simple and intuitive: Any user could understand the feature, regardless of knowledge level or language.
  • Perceptive information: It's easy to determine information associated with the feature.
  • Tolerance for error: The design minimizes danger and potential consequences of misuse.
  • Low physical effort: You won't break a sweat.
  • Size and space for approach and use: Whether seated or standing, you have the room to get around and the ability to reach for things.

[source: Connell et al.]


To see what this looks like in practice, let's take a virtual tour of a home that incorporates universal design. Stepless entry is a hallmark characteristic of a universal design home; it's easy for anyone to enter. When you open the door, notice the lever door handle. It's much easier than a door knob when your hands are full of groceries or if you have arthritis.

On the ground floor, you should find everything you need, from the kitchen to a bathroom, but most notably, at least one bedroom should be on the ground floor. It will probably be the master bedroom, so that when the occupants can't climb stairs anymore, they'll be able to live on just the first floor.

Just because everything's on one floor doesn't mean that boomers won't have two-story homes; rather, guest bedrooms or home offices might be upstairs. If a home does have more than one level, stairs should be stained slightly different colors to aid someone with poor vision. Another option might be to install stacked cabinets, which can be converted to install an elevator when you need one to get from floor to floor.

No matter which room you head to first, you'll be walking in wide hallways -- everything should accommodate a wheelchair's turning radius. Not in a wheelchair yet? Everything will just look spacious and open. You're likely walking on hardwood floors as opposed to movement-restricting carpet. Light should be abundant throughout the home, and light switches, as well as outlets and thermostats, should be no higher than 48 inches (1.2 meters) off the floor [source: Perkins].

In the kitchen, everything is placed for easy use by both a person in the wheelchair and a standing person. The microwave is on the counter as opposed to mounted within the cabinets, and the countertops and cabinets are a bit lower than in some houses.

Inside a universal design kitchen
Realistic Reflections/Getty Images

Nature's calling, so let's check out the bathroom. The toilet is higher, and the countertops are set at different levels to accommodate different users. Instead of a bathtub, there might be a walk-in shower, which could become a "wheel-in" shower if necessary. The wall of the shower has been reinforced so that a grab bar can be added for someone who needs help getting in and out of the shower. And don't think that a grab bar will look straight out of the nursing home -- many companies are now making more stylish accessories for aging baby boomers, including designer shower chairs and grab bars.

On the next page, we'll learn about incorporating universal design.


Incorporating Universal Design

Plan ahead for universal design when building a home.
Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Getty Images

Incorporating universal design may only add about 5 percent to the costs of building a home, compared to building a similar home without universal design features [source: Taylor]. Sometimes there may be no cost difference at all, representing a tremendous savings from a retirement community.

It is, however, much more expensive to remodel an existing home to incorporate universal design than it is to build a universal design home from the ground up; some features put in as part of a retrofit may cost 20 times more than if they'd been put in at the start [source: Dupes]. For example, installing a wider doorway during home construction may only cost $6 more than a conventional home, the cost of a bigger door. If done as part of a remodel, it may cost $650, to account for the reworking of the doorway [source: Burney]. Installing an elevator in a home with stacked cabinets could cost about $20,000; the same project from scratch is closer to $50,000 [source: Burney].


But whether you're building a new house or remodeling, you shouldn't wait until you need universal design features to start incorporating them. If you're interested, it's time to start planning -- it's too late if you've fallen and your home doesn't accommodate a wheelchair.

It's never too early to start thinking about universal design, either. As you might have picked up from our home tour on the previous page, not just the elderly will benefit from the features, and they're not noticeable unless you need them. A wide hallway will help a young mother with a stroller and lowered light switches will be reachable for children.

Incorporating the features may also increase the value of your home, because anyone can live there. By 2030, 70 million people will be over 65 -- that's 20 percent of the U.S. population [source: Gardyn]. Neglecting universal design features may cause many potential buyers to overlook your home, and as more boomers demand these features, universal design may become mandatory. Already, the state of California has a voluntary universal design code, and some cities and counties are creating zoning categories to encourage universal design construction.

If you're not sure which features you'll need, help is available. While more contractors are becoming familiar with these concepts, you might look for one that's been specially trained. In 2002, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) created the Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS) program in association with the AARP. The program trains professionals on how to design and create a home that meets the needs of the aging. During the course, contractors and designers step away from the drawing board to experience moving through a home in a wheelchair and trying to open a door while holding tennis balls to simulate arthritis. To find a CAPS professional, check out the NAHB's directory.

You can find more stories and links on aging, baby boomers and housing on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • "Aging in Place." Abode. July 2007. (June 9, 2008)
  • "All About Aging in Place Fact Sheet." National Association of Home Builders. (June 9, 2008)
  • Burney, Teresa. "Building for Life." AARP SegundaJuventud. April/May 2005. (June 16, 2008)
  • Connell, Bettye Rose, Mike Jones, Ron Mace, Jim Mueller, Abir Mullic, Elaine Ostroff, Jon Sanford, Ed Steinfeld, Molly Story and Gregg Vanderheiden, comp. "Universal Design Principles." The Center for Universal Design. April 1, 1997. (June 9, 2008)
  • Creno, Glen and Jonathan J. Higuera. "Homebuilders Cater to Active Baby Boomers." The Arizona Republic. Jan. 23, 2006.
  • Dupes, Bill. "Aging in Place, Gracefully, with Universal Design." In Motion. March/April 2005. (June 9, 2008)
  • Gardyn, Rebecca. "Retirement Redefined." American Demographics. November 2000.
  • Hickey, Mary C. "A Design for Senior Living." Business Week. July 19, 1999.
  • Lewis, Marilyn. "Elegant remodels allow 'aging in place'." MSN Real Estate. (June 9, 2008)
  • Miller, Janet. "Building homes with aging Baby Boomers in mind." Ann Arbor Business Review. May 3, 2007. (June 9, 2008) homes_with_aging_baby.html
  • Neal, Andrea. "Elder Care: Aging in Place." The Saturday Evening Post. July/August 2007.
  • Perkins, Broderick. "Baby Boomer Demand Boosting 'Universal Design'." Realty Times. June 27, 2003. (June 9, 2008)
  • Peterson, Mary Jo. "Ten Design Trends to Follow for Aging in Place." Kitchen & Bath Design News. January 2007. (June 9, 2008) 3546&pageNum=1
  • Robinson, Joe. "Hey, great-looking grab bar!" Los Angeles Times. Jan. 24, 2008.
  • Savoye, Craig. "'Aging in Place': More People are Staying Put for Retirement." Christian Science Monitor. April 3, 2001.
  • Taylor, Charles. "Aging populations inspire 'universal design' housing." National Association of Counties County News. Jan. 15, 2007. (June 9, 2008) ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=22282
  • "Understanding Universal Design." AARP. (June 9, 2008)
  • "Universal Design in Housing." The Center for Universal Design. Rev. January 2007. (June 9, 2008)