Designing ‘forever homes’ where people can stay as they grow older

Innovative, low-cost features that make it easier for homeowners to maintain their independence over the long term

What does a home look like for someone who wants to stay there as they grow older?

It’s a question that a University of Alberta researcher and an Edmonton-based homebuilder are tackling through innovative design.

Lara Pinchbeck

Collaborating with Effect Home Builders and using evidence-based research, doctoral candidate Lara Pinchbeck is helping identify meaningful features that can help design forever homes for people who want to age in place.

“We’re taking what we know works and translating it into real-life contexts,” said Pinchbeck, who is studying accessibility issues under design anthropologist Megan Strickfaden in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences.

Aging in their own homes is becoming important to people, especially in the wake of the COVID-29 pandemic, she noted.

“The conversation in North America is, especially in response to the pandemic, that people want to explore what aging-in-place options look like.”

Baby boomers also want to maintain their independence, which to them means staying in their homes, she added. And that means including long-term features that will let residents safely navigate gradual aging-related issues like reduced mobility, poorer eyesight, even mild dementia.

Through her consulting business, Pinchbeck, who also holds a U of A master’s degree in human ecology, is advising Effect Home Builders on the best, most cost-friendly features for new homes and renovations that can keep people aging comfortably in place.

“We want to be able to give people the opportunity, after putting so much work into building their home, to live there as long as possible so that this can truly be their forever home.”

Working with the company, Pinchbeck is mapping out a tiered design approach with easily doable, low-cost components that could be part of a new house design or added later as renovations.

“We map out how someone would use the entire home environment for the time they are in their home.”

Lighting, materials like flooring and countertops, and paint colours are all being considered through the lens of aging at home, added Pinchbeck, who contributes to a company blog about aging-in-place designs.

Something as basic as colour schemes can make a difference for someone who develops weaker eyesight, she noted. While white-on-white is a popular choice for walls and countertops, it poses challenges.

“What happens if you have diminishing eyesight and you can’t distinguish the different planes and surfaces? If I’ve got a cup of hot coffee and I can’t see where the edge of the counter is, I can splash it all over my feet, or bump into things more often.”

Careful choices in other building materials like flooring can also help people who develop cognitive issues, she noted. While smooth flooring throughout a house can be confusing for someone with dementia, being able to identify the feel of a soft carpet underfoot, say for a bedroom, helps them identify what the room is for.

“It provides an easy cue in the home.”

Small design changes, such as raising plug-ins from floor to counter height, also help with dexterity.

Pinchbeck, who is also a Rick Hansen Foundation Professional Accessibility Assessor, brings valuable research-based knowledge to the homebuilding industry, said Alberta School of Business graduate Les Wold, sales and marketing manager for Effect Home Builders.

“Quite often in general, home designs are built for one function such as energy efficiency but don’t necessarily take future life changes into consideration. So there’s almost an expectation that a homeowner will just move if they’re not able to function in a home, or they’ll have to spend a lot of money on renovations. But we want to be proactive in our approach without incurring a lot of cost.”

While companies like Effect Home Builders have the technical knowledge they need when meeting clients’ priorities for their dream homes, “They’re also looking to us to be highly informed, so by working with research-based data, we have accurate information that we know is the best available,” Wold said.

“Working with Lara, it’s really opened our eyes to a few things we hadn’t even considered. We were doing a lot of things right, but we see this as a great way to educate ourselves and then be able to help our clients and others through sharing research-based information,” he added. He noted that Pinchbeck and Effect Home Builders will be discussing their work with other homebuilders, designers, suppliers, subtrades and the public through a webinar on March 19 in recognition of World Home Economics Day.

“The more awareness the building industry has, the better the end product will be for the homeowner.”

Wold added that his clients are welcoming the extra knowledge about making their homes adaptable.

“If they haven’t specifically stated it as one of their priorities, I’ll ask them about it, and it’s amazing how often it’s an ‘aha’ moment for them. They want it but hadn’t really considered it.”

Collaborating with a homebuilder is rewarding, said Pinchbeck, who’d previously worked in the architectural field and decided to take on graduate studies after she noticed a lack of awareness about designing accessible spaces.

“It’s great to work with a partner who was interested in making a change; I wanted to find pivot points in the design process that might effect some kind of change. Why not go for the gold and platinum standard in what we are trying to design?”

| By Bev Betkowski for Troy Media

This article was submitted by the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. Folio is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the authors’ alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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