Consider everything from wide hallways and a low-threshold shower to easy-access storage and a minimum of stairs — plus accommodations for guests or a caretaker.

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Wondering how you can remodel your existing home to make it “elder friendly?” Here’s an alternative: start from scratch with new construction that uses the principles of universal design. Your custom house can have everything from wide hallways and a low-threshold shower to easy-access storage and a minimum of stairs — plus accommodations for guests or a caretaker.

“The biggest trend is young people who are thinking in terms of building a house that will be multigenerational housing,” says Angela Palmer, a designer with Timberland Homes in Auburn. “Some are thinking about older parents moving in with them. Others want the new house as a vacation getaway, but down the road they expect to retire there.”

As a result, new homes built for “aging in place” aren’t designed just for seniors. “As it turns out, a lot of the design features needed for aging in place make any home safer and easier to live in,” Palmer says.

Whether you’re designing a home for a multigenerational family or building a dream home for your retirement years, Palmer and her colleagues have some tips for what to consider.

On the level

“The first thing you do is get rid of stairs,” says David McKim, president of Timberland Homes. Nearly all of the modular homes Timberland designs and builds for customers in the Pacific Northwest are single-level, with master suites on the main floor.

“A lot of baby boomers are skipping downsizing,” he says. “They aren’t moving to a condo — they still want a spacious large house for guests and entertaining. But now they want it without all the stairs.”

You can still have a classic front entrance, but McKim suggests that the steps up to it have deeper treads and be adjoined by a sturdy handrail. Building atop a lower foundation will help keep the number of entry steps to a minimum — and make it easier to install an entry ramp if your home needs one.

Rethink your space

Heidi Steele, a trained kitchen and bath specialist for Timberland, started her career as a cabinetmaker. She’s always thinking about ways to make better use of space. Traditional homes, with their staircases, long, narrow hallways, and lots of small rooms, reduce mobility and discourage socializing. Steele likes contemporary open kitchen/living areas that make it easy for people to gather, and easier for seniors to entertain.

Open kitchen/living areas make it easy for people to gather, and easier for seniors to entertain. (Timberland Homes)
Open kitchen/living areas make it easy for people to gather, and easier for seniors to entertain. (Timberland Homes)

When designing for aging in place, she recommends that the house have at least one spacious bathroom where it will be easy for someone using a walker or a wheelchair to get to the shower, toilet and sink. “You need a 5-foot radius in a bathroom for a wheelchair to turn around, and space for a wheelchair beside the toilet,” she says.

Comfort-height toilets, originally designed to meet ADA requirements, are now pretty much the standard for new homes. For aging-in-place, you’ll want to select a low-threshold shower with grab bars, a built-in or pull-down shower seat, and an adjustable-height showerhead with a handheld shower wand.

Steele’s ideal design for aging in place includes space for your family, guests or even live-in caretakers. That space might be as simple as a bedroom with an adjoining bath or as spacious as a guest wing. One of the most popular solutions is a stand-alone living unit called a “casita” (small house).

“A casita can be anything you like it to be, from a single living room to a fully equipped apartment,” Steele says. Casitas are often connected to the main house by a breezeway or central courtyard.

For aging-in-place, you’ll want to select a low-threshold shower with grab bars, a built-in or pull-down shower seat, and an adjustable-height showerhead with a handheld shower wand. (Timberland Homes)
For aging-in-place, you’ll want to select a low-threshold shower with grab bars, a built-in or pull-down shower seat, and an adjustable-height showerhead with a handheld shower wand. (Timberland Homes)

Think safety

With falls the most common cause of hospital admissions for seniors, reducing the chance of such accidents is likely to be at the top of the list when you’re planning a home for yourself or for aging family members. Good lighting and nonslip flooring will help reduce falls. So will eliminating high shelves and hard-to-reach storage.

“You want to put your cabinets and your counters down, to make everything reachable,” McKim says. “And you want to bring the electrical outlets up.” (Accessibility standards specify outlets 15 inches off the floor, or higher.) Installing drawers rather than deep cabinets below counters will put pots, pans, and kitchen supplies in easy reach, he says.

Many seniors experience problems with depth perception, so good lighting is essential throughout the house. “Everyone knows that in the kitchen, you want good task lighting and under-cabinet lighting,” Palmer says. “But you don’t want to forget about lighting for hallways, and for the walkways leading up to the house.”

She says she’s been surprised — and pleased — to find so many young people thinking ahead about the design of their homes. “The concept of aging in place is relatively new, but it’s catching on fast. People are finding properties they love and looking to build homes that will last them for years.”

Every Timberland Home comes with high-quality finishes and brand names you can trust. For nearly 40 years, we’ve built homes from downtown Seattle, southeast Alaska, to the San Juan Islands. Check out our furnished display homes located in Auburn, Washington.