An aging population together with new economic pressures requires imaginative solutions. With a dramatic shift in demographics and a concurrent shift in demand for age appropriate housing, design for lifelong homes or age friendly housing needs to become the new ”green” and move into the mainstream. Is a hill town in Italy where people have to walk steep stairs to their house and inhabitants have a longevity record or a suburban American ranch home with level access, age friendly? Geography, social structure, culture and policies have to be considered if senior housing solutions should be viable and sustainable. Similar to current certification programs for environmentally sustainable design that have fostered awareness, product innovation and sustainable design practice, it is time to think about a certification program for sustainable design that will incentivize the design for lifelong or age friendly homes.
Interest in age friendly cities, lifelong or livable communities has grown over the last couple of years, from the World Health Organization and its Age Friendly City network and guidelines to the latest home grown initiative by Grantmakers In Aging who together with Pfizer have recently funded a CommunityAGEnda Initiative, a pilot program to help communities become more age friendly. Our most intimate environment, the home has not yet gotten equal attention. Home design for seniors mostly stops at design for accessibility. There is a difference between the needs of an aging person who develops various frailties over time and a person with disabilities. Only about 30% of elder end up using a wheel chair on a more permanent basis, yet many use supportive devices such as walker or cane. Aging is hard work, hearing problems, a decrease in visual perception, memory loss and with it the risk and fear of falling are some of the most common challenges of older age. Clearly, designers have to understand the physical and the emotional challenges which accompany this stage of life.
How can we learn from the quality label “Green”? The nonprofit organization which has defined ‘green’ design and created the LEED certification program is the USGBC (United States Green Building Council), founded by a marketing executive and a group of environmentalists, it has spawned a mainstream awareness and an economic interest in environmentally sound practices and products. Their LEED point system rewards specific sustainable design measures from low energy heating/cooling systems to encouraging the use of recycled materials. There is of course room for improvement such as the lack of rewarding small foot prints or rewarding the design for adaptive reuse of buildings. How well buildings and especially homes adapt to their users needs over a life time does not only add value to a home but is essential in allowing their inhabitants to age in place.
How can we learn from ADA guidelines that have opened the world for people with disabilities? With the need of providing a home for so many aging baby boomers there is not only a need but also an urgency to raise the quality of age friendly home design.
ImmoQ, a Swiss firm linked to the famous Swiss Engineering and Architecture Academy ETH has recently launched a project for a Quality Label for Age Friendly Housing (called ‘Living at Every Age’ or LEA) which is currently under study and development with a projected start date in 2015. This is the first such initiative in housing. The goal is to incentivize this quality certification for all housing design not just for specific senior housing projects. For developers and investors this will become a marketing instrument in a society with not only a high need for senior housing but an increasingly individualistic approach to being at ‘home with growing old’. For designers it will become a guide, resource and incentive for innovation. For consumers it will become a screening tool for housing that supports aging in place. In the Swiss model an age friendly home has to satisfy six criteria: Barrier-Free Design, Adaptability/Age Appropriate Design, Comfort, Safety, Community Connection, Privacy/Ease of Orientation. From a US standpoint two criteria seem to missing at first sight, access to technology and affordability, both important parameters in a socially sustainable design for an aging population in our society. How would current US housing score with the Swiss model? How would it have to be adapted to reflect current policies and needs? What effect would a Quality Label ‘Age Friendly’ and certification program have in the US housing market? Would such a label open new funding sources, such as from the health care industry, recognizing that homes have reemerged as the point of care? What can we learn from the green movement and the disability movement to make this a viable proposition that is attractive to investors, developers, designers and consumers alike?
The demand for age appropriate housing is undeniable but the understanding what age friendly housing is, very limited. This is a chance to correct that for the years to come. My dream is that this will lead to more thoughtfulness and imagination in design (if we look at the kitchen as a health center and not just a place to cook – how does this affect kitchen design?), more choices how we dwell (from living again with room mates to a small, ‘smart’ apartment to living in an in-law or multi-unit housing) and more interest by developers to engage in this market by not only building senior housing but lifelong housing.