Expand Inc. owner Tom Ashely Jr., who earned his Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist certification in 2004, says demand for aging-in-place home designs is “way up.” Photography by Brian Baiamonte
In 2004, Denham Springs builder and owner of Expand Inc. Tom Ashley Jr. made a decision to become a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist, traveling to Houston to gain the National Association of Home Builders’ special designation. The veteran builder believed the CAPS certification would give him a leg up with aging baby boomers, a demographic he felt would be clamoring to adapt their residences as they faced their golden years.
It didn’t exactly pan out.
“I couldn’t give the idea away,” recalls Ashley, who was then just the second builder in Louisiana to achieve the designation. “I’d sit at my booth at homebuilder shows and no one would come by. The public just wasn’t ready for it.”
Now, things have changed. Aging-in-place design is on the minds of a growing number of consumers around the country and in Baton Rouge, some of whom are building “forever homes” they hope to never leave. Others are hiring builders to make adjustments to their homes to accommodate family members with compromised mobility, including aging parents who visit, or spouses within the home.
“Demand is way up,” says Ashley, who recently won NAHB’s Certified Aging in Place Specialist Designee of the Year award from among the more than 5,000 U.S. builders with CAPS certification (of which approximately 3,000 are active). “The public is just a lot more educated, and there are so many more design options. It’s not just about stainless steel grab bars that make your house look like a hospital.”
Today, NAHB estimates that more than 70% of homeowners completing a remodeling project are incorporating aging-related improvements along the way. The trend shows no signs of slowing down. According to AARP, the majority of older American homeowners want to continue living in their homes as they continue to age, rather than relocating to a pricey retirement community or moving in with a relative. By 2030, the number of U.S. residents 65 or older will be nearly 73 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Aging-in-place refers to a large variety of design features that improve the safety, independence and quality of life for aging homeowners. The term is different from “universal design” in that it’s tailored to specifically accommodate the physical and emotional needs of the client. Universal design, on the other hand, is a more general application, Ashley says.
Creating a custom-fit strategy that really works for a particular aging or infirmed homeowner can be tricky, Ashley adds. Builders have to be willing to discern exactly what sort of physical interactions a client requires in each room of the house—including the bathroom.
Ashley says his firm often works with a client’s occupational therapist to understand the flow of movement, such as how a person enters the shower or bath and whether they have right or left side orientation for opening doors and cabinets. If a client does not have an occupational therapist, Ashley brings one on board to help his team translate needs into brick-and-mortar features.
Several years ago, NAHB collaborated with several organizations, including AARP, to develop the CAPS certification program so builders would be better equipped to work with consumers in need of these kinds of modifications. Ashley, a former NAHB national board member, has been involved in the program as it has grown. He now sits on an education committee focused on ongoing curriculum development.
“Having empathy is a big part of doing this right,” he says. “Sometimes you’re having to create a design to accommodate someone who is suddenly impaired, and it’s important that everyone on board, including the subs, understand why the design needs to be done this way or that way.”
“Nobody wants to feel like they’re living in a nursing home. But the design world has really caught up. Companies have designed fixtures and features that are all about fitting into the design of the home rather than standing out.” —Robert Carroll, co-owner, Carroll Construction
Today, the top five most frequently completed projects for homeowners choosing to age in place are adding grab bars, adding a ramp to the entrance, increasing doorway widths, adding a bathroom to the ground floor and adding lever handled doorknobs, according to a 2015 survey by HomeAdvisor in partnership with the National Aging in Place Council.
Like Ashley, Robert Carroll, co-owner of Carroll Construction, earned CAPS certification from NAHB to work more effectively with older homeowners and to be able to help younger homeowners plan for the future. Carroll says he sees rising demand for aging-in-place in renovation projects, because the vast majority of homes in Baton Rouge and around the country weren’t outfitted with features friendly to older people.
Carroll agrees that for many years, a major impediment to aging-in-place for consumers was design.
“Nobody wants to feel like they’re living in a nursing home,” says Carroll. “But the design world has really caught up. Companies have designed fixtures and features that are all about fitting into the design of the home rather than standing out.”
For example, you don’t have to add grab bars off the bat, but you can ensure your builder has installed proper blocking to make this adjustment seamless down the road. Blocking is the addition of extra supports within a wall so that, once installed, a grab bar will be secure enough to support an adult.
“It’s a good idea to get your builder to create a photo log of where the blocking is,” says Carroll.
Automation is another big trend in aging-in-place design. It includes adding motion sensors that activate lighting and smart thermostats that can be controlled with apps. Garage doors can also be opened and closed through apps, says Carroll.
“You have to think about someone being in a wheelchair or walker,” he says. “Having a motion sensor in a room or being able to control functions with an app can make life a lot easier.”
One of the most important adjustments to make in a house for older homeowners is extra lighting, including the additional cans in an overhead lighting plan.
“When you think about aging-in-place, you think about a lack of mobility, but really, one of the biggest things that can change is vision,” says Carroll. “Extra lighting can make a big difference.”
Demand for aging-in-place components could become even more robust in the greater Baton Rouge area as homeowners forced to renovate or rebuild after the August flood consider adding elements that will allow them to stay in their homes over the long term, or that allow for aging family members to move in.
“There are still an awful lot of homes out there that need to be renovated,” says Ashley, “and a lot of things can be done without significant extra cost.”