PATH Report: Ageless Designs

Connect these dots: Aging-in-place remodeling is the fastest growing segment of the residential remodeling industry. About 20 percent of the U.S. population will be elderly by 2030, and in 50 years, the percentage of retirees will more than double, according to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

October 31, 2006



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Installing a curbless shower entry allows easier access to customers with less mobility.

Connect these dots: Aging-in-place remodeling is the fastest growing segment of the residential remodeling industry. About 20 percent of the U.S. population will be elderly by 2030, and in 50 years, the percentage of retirees will more than double, according to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

NAHB estimates the market could reach the $20 billion to $25 billion range as the population ages. And a survey by the AARP reveals that 89 percent of people 55 and older want to stay in their homes as long as possible, in contrast to many retirees in the previous generation, who chose to relocate to sunny Florida.

Clearly, a large market is waiting for remodelers who learn how to cater to an aging clientele. But the beauty of aging-in-place design is that it isn't just for the elderly: it also improves the living space of the young, the disabled and even people in the prime of their lives.

"It has become a multi-dimensional market," says Dan Bawden, president of Legal Eagle Contractors in Bellaire, Texas. "We do a lot of add-ons for older clients remodeling their own homes. But when I meet with baby boomers and tell them about aging-in-place techniques, they start thinking about their homes for the long-term, too."

"As a result, we've seen a steady increase in all of our business," says Bawden. "Pretty much all of our projects now include some aging-in-place features."

Features for any budget

Further good news about this market: it's relatively easy to service. A few well-thought-out changes can make a big difference in the quality of life. And aging-in-place methods usually don't cost much or anything at all. In fact, many aging-in-place features just require a little extra planning.

Here are some upgrades to consider:

Lighting and Visuals

Good lighting and bright color schemes are crucial to home safety for anyone with impaired vision. But brighter light bulbs won't solve the problem because the elderly are more sensitive to glare.

To compensate, consider the effect of lighting placement, assuring that fixtures provide balanced, consistent lighting throughout a room. This reduces the glare and reduces the amount of shadow. Focus additional light on areas that need it most, such as doorways and stairwells, to offer greater security.

While you're at it, achieve adequate lighting through energy-efficient lighting and passive solar design. These measures serve seniors and residents on fixed incomes by minimizing monthly energy bills.

Handles, Switches and Outlets 

Simple changes such as elevating dishwashers 6 to 8 inches off the floor and installing grab bars in the shower are particularly appealing to elderly client.

For small hands or clients suffering from arthritis, turning a knob can be a significant chore. Easy-grip handles and hardware throughout the home can make life easier for young and old.

Replace traditional light switches with rocker-style or touch switches with large flat panels. To make light and fan switches, thermostats and other environmental controls more accessible, place them no higher than 48 inches from the floor. Also place electrical outlets 15 inches from the floor.

Windows and Doors

Wider doorways can have a big impact on accessibility, and in remodeling, it's particularly easy. If you are changing a door anyway, it just makes sense to widen the entryway, usually to 36 inches.

For people of all ages, there are advantages to having at least one no-step entry into the home. Not only does it allow for easier wheelchair access, it's also a valuable route for anyone carrying heavy bags — or toddlers.

For windows, choose easy-to-operate hardware for opening and closing. If possible, install lower windows or taller windows with lower sill height.

Kitchen and Bath

In the bathroom, the simplest upgrade is installing a grab bar in the shower or tub. This is particularly easy if you are replacing the shower or tub anyway. Other options include replacing shower door tracks, which restrict movement in and out of the tub, with a trackless system. Install a curbless or roll-in entry to allow easier access for customers with less mobility, although this design is a bit more expensive than a basic shower.

In the kitchen, adjustable cabinet systems allow greater access to storage areas and more under-counter kneespace for people who need to be seated. A less expensive and versatile option is pullout shelves, which provide a similar benefit.

Place countertops at varying heights throughout the kitchen to create workspace for people of different height.

Side-by-side refrigerators and stoves with front-mounted controls provide easier access. Place the microwave or wall oven 31 inches off the floor. Elevate the dishwasher 6 to 8 inches off the floor, and make it accessible from both the right and left sides.

One step beyond

To learn aging-in-place techniques, NAHB offers a certification (see sidebar), as do many local builder associations. These are a great place to start.

To meet a client's special needs, however, Bawden often confers with a medical professional. This person can meet with clients to discuss health and safety issues, and then go into the home to do an in-depth inspection.

"Sometimes clients are more comfortable talking about private issues with medical professionals, and they can also give a fuller assessment of the home," Bawden says. "They can get the client thinking a little more long term about themselves and their home."

This is not only to the client's benefit, but the remodeler's as well. When Bawden consults a medical professional, the project work typically expands.

Author Information
Scott T. Shepherd writes about better building practices on behalf of the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH). PATH is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Learn more at


Get the Know How

The NAHB Remodelers Council, in collaboration with AARP, NAHB Research Center, and NAHB Seniors Housing Council, developed a program to help builders and remodelers learn aging-in-place design. NAHB's Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) designation program has three parts: techniques for working with and marketing to older adults, specific home modification measures, and business management skills. Learn more at

Other aging-in-place resources:

ToolBase: Accessible Housing

Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH): "Homes for Everyone: Universal Design Principles in Practice"

Professional Remodeler: "Aging in Place Opportunities"

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