Accommodating the possibility of being less mobile is relatively easy and doesn't deter from the aesthetics of the house. There are three major areas of consideration for aging in place: life-safety, fall prevention and convenience.
The number one life-safety issue is providing an accessible exit from each floor. In two story houses, many architects create an accessible exit path by either installing a residential elevator or stacking elevator-sized closets for a future elevator. In houses less than 5 feet off the ground, we often include a ramp to the back or side door. A custom designed ramp will fit in with the overall architecture of the house.
Accessible doors are 36 inches wide and will preferably have flush thresholds but a maximum threshold of half-inch exterior and quarter-inch interior. Hallways should be at least 42 inches wide. Every room should have an open space of 5 feet by 5 feet for wheelchair maneuverability.
The building code requires that bedrooms have an egress window in case of fires. A house designed for aging in place will have 3-foot wide exterior doors from the bedrooms opening onto an area of refuge, which might be directly on grade or a balcony large enough for a wheelchair.
Floor material, adequate lighting and grab bars are the key to help prevent falls. Floors should be smooth, firm, and slip resistant. Carpet should be low pile (less than half- inch) with a firm pad. There should be plenty of natural light as well as both overall room lighting and task lighting. Particular care should be given to lighting stairwells, showers, entry doors and exterior walkways. Stairwells should have switches at both the top and bottom and hallways at both ends.
Stairwells should have handrails on both sides of the stairs. In bathrooms, install or provide blocking for future installation of grab bars in the shower, bathtub, and around the toilet. Likewise, you might want to install blocking in the hallways for future grab bars.
For greater convenience you might consider one floor living, low maintenance materials, and a 5-foot accessible aisle in the carport or garage for wheelchair access. Lever door handles and faucets are easier for arthritic hands to open. Finally, the construction of a separate guest house or two master suites can accommodate an aging relative or a live in nurse.
For more information visit the National Aging in Place Council website www.naipc.org.
Jane Frederick is an architect and co-owner of Frederick + Frederick Architects in Beaufort.