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Remodeler's Exchange: Aging in Place

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Universal Design

Remodeler's Exchange: Aging in Place

This month, the Remodeler’s Exchange focuses on aging-in-place design and construction methods. Professional Remodeler’s Tom Swartz spoke with Michael Menn and Tom Ashley about how their firms manage aging-in-place projects.

By Tom Swartz, Contributing Editor April 1, 2014
The most asked-for aging in place project is a bathroom renovation.
The most asked-for aging in place project is a bathroom renovation.
This article first appeared in the PR April 2014 issue of Pro Remodeler.

TOM SWARTZ: Can you define or explain aging in place and what it means to your company?

TOM ASHLEY: The Center for Disease Control defines aging in place as the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably regardless of age, income, or ability level. I consider that definition as close as possible, but I generally think a lot of people confuse universal design and aging in place. I look at it as a house that already exists that we need to modify for an aging couple that is planning on living in their home for life. In 2004 when I received my CAPS designation, I had this idea I was going to market aging in place and it would really take off. I found out that putting grab bars in people’s homes wasn’t quite a good market back then. People shied away from it because they were not familiar with aging-in-place design. But now our company feels that if we give back a little more to the client, it is a more rewarding to work on these aging-in-place projects. Sometimes the project may be for a handicapped child, and we need to incorporate the same principals in this type of design and also bring in a team of occupational therapists that can help design the project. It’s an evolving industry, and there are a lot of people that would like to get involved these days. When we first started, grab bars intimidated everybody, but now everyone from manufacturers to remodelers has become involved in aging in place. We have a special place at our company for aging-in-place work.

MICHAEL MENN: Aging in place to our company means helping people stay in their living environment longer. That can mean anything from adding a ramp because the homeowner is in a wheelchair to widening doorways to remodeling the bathroom and everything inbetween. Our generation has an ego problem with accepting the fact that we are getting older and that we are going to need help. I think that’s why aging in place can be a tough sell. I was the beta test for NAHB for the CAPS designation. I was the first one to take the CAPS course. I’ve seen the course evolve and so have our businesses. People don’t want to hear they need grab bars, or they may need to use a walker, or that thresholds are bad for them. We feel that we are invincible—and we are not. Aging in place helps people maintain that living environment for as long as it going to work for them before they might need assisted living care or a nursing home. When I meet with a client, I back into the aging-in-place conversation.

SWARTZ: What’s the biggest challenge when selling an aging-in-place project?

This month featuring:

Michael Menn, AAA, CGR, CAPS, CGP
Michael Menn Ltd., Northbrook, Ill.

Formed 26 years ago, Michael Menn Ltd. is a full-line architecture and remodeling firm. In 2013 the firm’s volume was $2.2 million, and the majority of their work is design-build remodeling.


Tom Ashley, CGR, CAPS, CGP
Expand Inc., Baton Rouge, La

Formed 25 years ago, Expand Inc. is a full-service remodeling company that focuses primarily on whole-house remodeling as well as kitchen and bath projects. In 2013, the firm’s volume was approximately $1 million.

MENN: The biggest challenge is convincing the clients that not everything is a stainless steel grab bar that flashes, “I am disabled.” There are lots of small, innovative things that will make their lives much better. Installing a ramp or making doorway wider, for example. In my own bathroom, I put a small 12-inch decorative grab bar on the head wall of my shower. It’s convincing our clients there are easy ways to do this work.

ASHLEY: It’s basically the same that Michael said. Mainly it’s the male figure that says, “I don’t need that in my home.” Once you get down and you explain the benefits of how aging in place can help both the husband and wife it usually works. You have to be creative when selling aging in place. The resistance in the first stages—even when we started selling aging in place in the early 2000s—was a lot higher. Now I see more proactive sales. We used to have reactive sales. It’s “I have to have it now,” as opposed to people saying, “I heard about aging in place, I would like to put something in my home now.” When it’s a grab bar, the homeowner is thinking “institutional.” When we take out a few pictures and show them an award-winning project and how the aging-in-place features blend in with the rest of the home, it’s less apprehensive to the homeowner and their anxiety is lower. It’s more of a marketing thing than anything else right now. People are learning so much more because of what manufacturers are making available for aging in place that people are talking about it. If you convince someone it’s more of an investment, they take that into consideration and they feel OK about making the decision. We will need it even more in the future as baby boomers are hitting the 50-plus age.

SWARTZ: How do you market your aging-in-place services?

ASHLEY: We do a number of seminars throughout the year such as “How to Choose a Remodeler.” The subject of aging in place comes up along with the topic of grab bars. Someone says, “I am not ready for grab bars.” I turn that around and say, “Well, it may not be for you but it may be for someone else in your family.” I also try to provoke other people to talk about why the need for aging in place is there as opposed to trying to force aging in place on them. We also do a lot of seminars at the home and garden shows that bring up the subject. We’ve tried different taglines such as “How to Keep Mother Out of a Nursing Home.” Those titles can be scary to the homeowner, so we try gauging the success by how many people show up for an event with such a title. We can then change the name in an effort to figure out what works. Most of the titles now are similar to “Aging in Your Home in a User-Friendly Environment.”

MENN: Four years ago, I made a business decision and chose to be a more sustainable company and, with that, the only piece of printed collateral that I have now is a business card. Everything else is done through social media. This strategy has worked great for my company. When we do our yearly schedule, we take one month that is dedicated to aging in place or universal design. We spend a whole month on this topic. I write a blog about aging in place, we post pictures from projects, we highlight manufacturers, and all of this is done on our social media sites, which includes Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, and our website. All of our marketing is done on our social media platforms.

SWARTZ: How do remodelers become CAPS certified and how important is that to their business?

MENN: It’s very important; it’s what sets you apart from the competition. In the aging-in-place arena, the CAPS designation is offered through the NAHB. There are two CAPS courses: CAPS 1 and CAPS 2. You take these two-day courses and it helps the remodeler understand everything from all points of view related to aging in place. For example, what you should be asking as a remodeling contractor, and understanding the people involved in an aging-in-place project—when you are working with someone in their 70s, they are not the one making the decisions. You should also understand the point of view from the occupational or physical therapist—they are the ones that have evaluated the client, and they are the ones that should be able to tell you, “Yes, we can use a tub with a swing-open door or no, we need to have a zero-threshold shower. We need grab bars here, no sink vanity, for example.” Those are the things we discuss when partnering with an OT or PT that help come together to bring a holistic approach to the client.

SWARTZ: Do you have to be a member of NAHB to be CAPS certified?

MENN: No, actually you can go to NAHB.org and in the “search” parameter you can put in the designations, and from there you can drill down into the CAPS designation. From there, you can find everything you need to know about CAPS certification. There are a lot of people that I know that are CAPS designated that are not NAHB members such as occupational and physical therapists; a few associates in our local area have become CAPS designated because they provide products that are related to aging in place.

SWARTZ: Is the CAPS certification important to aging-in-place work?

ASHLEY: I am the chair of the CAPS Board of Governors, and like Michael said, we are working on processes that help team-building efforts between OT/PTs and remodelers and designers. We are developing materials they can use to market their product better, we meet to discuss what trends we need to start following, and how to modify the certification courses.

SWARTZ: How do you get aging-in-place work and do you recommend specific aging-in-place features to potential and existing clients?

ASHLEY: When I do a seminar, I usually end up having work referred to me. I go by the theory that we can blow a lot of smoke, but once you are in someone’s home, and you can see what changes can be made in their life and quality of life it basically sells itself. I have a few clients that had aging-in-place work done and they invite people into their homes because they want to share the work that was done and how it impacted their life.

MENN: If we are working in collaboration with an OT/PT, we will speak beforehand to decide what measures may be best. NAHB puts out a CAPS brochure that we can bring along to the meeting. I use an iPad to show off pictures of recent aging-in-place projects. I have a special aging-in-place section for potential clients to review before and after projects that we did. This shows the client that aging in place doesn’t need to be institutionalized, it could look very contemporary, traditional, and should be included as part of the design of their home. Nothing has to be out of place, nothing has to be institutional. We are also in the process of revamping our website to mirror what we have on our iPads. The aging-in-place tab on our website will also provide links to AARP, NAHB, and other similar aging-in-place related sites. It will be designed so the client can actually go there and do more research on their own.

SWARTZ: What’s the most common aging-in-place project and what is the most profitable?

MENN: The most asked-for project is a bathroom renovation. When we are talking to the boomer generation, and most of them want three things. First, remodeling their bathroom; next, remodeling their kitchen; and last, remodeling their family or media room. When we talk to them about remodeling the bathroom, we are going to be proactive and talk about putting in a wider door, a curbless shower, making the vanity more accessible. That’s probably the most asked-for project. The most profitable is a whole-house renovation where the clients comes to us and through the design process we are looking at the whole house as an entity. The larger the project, the bigger the scale, the more profitable it can be.

SWARTZ: Who is the decision maker or the driving force when it comes to exploring aging-in-place projects?

ASHLEY: Generally, the 60-plus-aged female is the one that drives the decision-making for an aging-in-place project. When we have seminars, this is the person that is really the most active and asks the most questions. They are also the one most affected in terms of being the caretaker. One thing that is overlooked is that a lot of people when they do the CAPS evaluation sometimes we forget about the caretaker. As difficult it is getting someone in a tub, it is critical for the caretaker to have a grab bar as it is for the homeowner. The female client may be more empathetic, but once the husband or the male sees the advantages of aging in place, I think they tend to see the reward based on helping themselves or their wives stay safe in their home.

MENN: With me, it depends on when I get called into the process. If I am talking to a baby boomer and we are talking about renovating a home, then I am talking with the end user. The majority of the decisions are indeed made by the female side of the partnership. When it’s later on in the process and the person may already be in a wheelchair, then we are dealing with a combination of the caregiver, OT/PT, and the adult children.

SWARTZ: So the children recognize that need for assistance for the parents and they want the parents to remain in their current home?

MENN: Yes, and it can be tough because when they are making decisions for their parents, they are not experiencing it themselves. When I tell them if the doorway were a little wider or a curbless shower, the adult children don’t understand why. We have to take more time and explain it to them. We don’t have a problem doing that but unless they experience being in a wheel chair or using a walker, a cane, or have limited mobility because they have arthritis, to explain to the adult children that their parents need a level handle on their faucet or shower—they truly don’t experience it.

SWARTZ: What advice would you give today’s remodeler who is thinking of getting into the aging-in-place niche in the remodeling industry?

MENN: First, understand the market. Do your research, become a CAPS designation holder because you will learn a lot about aging in place. If you really want to make this a big niche, you can expand your knowledge base to understand universal design. Go out and talk to the manufacturers of the products and learn more at the Design & Construction Week in Las Vegas. At D&CW there are probably hundreds of products that are displayed that can be used in some form as part of an aging-in-place project. Also, ask the manufacturers for people who have used their products and talk to that end user.

ASHLEY: I would like to add to what Michael said, the CAPS designations for sure but also go to meetings or seminars outside of the remodeling industry and tell the story how aging in place works for the remodeling industry. You’d be surprised at the people that flock to the seminars and listen to your aging-in-place story. Everyone in that room has someone that is affected by aging in place, they just don’t know where to go or what to do. It is outside of our own industry, so you have to get out of your own silo and mingle with the others and team up with OT/PTs, designers, and healthcare professionals. That way, you can make a business like this succeed and the best part about it is that it is more rewarding than a standard bathroom remodel. When you see the smile on the face of the elderly person that can make it through a door and get access to a tub without help, you will see a major difference because of the rewarding social benefit. PR


This month, the Remodeler’s Exchange focuses on aging-in-place design and construction methods. Professional Remodeler’s Tom Swartz spoke with Michael Menn and Tom Ashley about how their firms manage aging-in-place projects.

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