Universal design may not be universal now, but it could be by mid-century.
A recent report published in the Journal of the American Planning Association forecasts that 28 percent of households will have at least one disabled resident by 2050 (disabled defined as an individual with physical or self-care limitations). And then there's the friends and family factor. Even homeowners who are not impaired themselves will likely want to entertain visitors with accessibility requirements in the years ahead. The researchers behind the study, "Aging and Disability: Implications for the Housing Industry and Housing Policy in the United States," estimate that 91 percent of those buying newly constructed single family homes by 2050 will need to accommodate residents or visitors with physical disabilities.
In 2000, 35 million Americans were 65 or older, representing 12 percent of the population. That number is expected to climb to 86 million by 2050, with seniors composing 21 percent of the population, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections.
Today, 90 percent of the housing stock in the United States is inaccessible to people with mobility impairments. While federal laws require universal design features in multifamily structures, new single family homes are largely exempt from wheelchair access requirements such as ground floor bathrooms, widened doors and hallways, and zero-threshold entrances.
Some say the tipping point prompting stricter code legislation for detached homes could end up being the tax burden associated with inaction. The present dearth of accessible housing forces many seniors and disabled people into assisted care facilities because they have no other options, the study authors noted. This is a pricey and impractical solution, particularly when individuals end up relegated to facilities with hands-on care that far exceeds their needs. The average cost of nursing home care is estimated at $74,000 for a private room and $64,000 for a semi-private room. American taxpayers covered 60 percent of the $122 billion spent on nursing home care in 2005 via Medicaid and Medicare. Research by AARP suggests that boomers may soon start looking to home builders to provide a broader range of housing alternatives for independent living, including homes outfitted with wider entrances and turning radiuses, comfort height toilets, lever door handles, safety grab bars, and better lighting. Demand could also rise for high-tech homes equipped with sensors to detect falls, emergency response security systems, and automated controls to regulate temperature, lighting, and appliances.
"Almost nine in 10 older Americans want to be able to stay in their own homes, and they are willing to use technology that can help them do that," Elinor Ginzler, AARP Senior VP for Livable Communities, said in a recent release. "Cost, however, is the elephant in the room – how to pay remains a big obstacle."
Some single family builders have already begun to anticipate demand for accessible homes as the nation's 78 million baby boomers enter their golden years. "Up to this point, the disabled percentage of the population has been pushed aside, but now the boomer tsunami is going to drive America's housing production to suit its needs, and this will cause a significant shift," says builder Bill Slease, whose McKinney, Texas-based company, Tapestry Custom Homes, specializes in universally designed new builds and retrofits. "This is the next wave behind the green movement. Builders haven't come around to it, but they will have to."
Senior advocates have also issued calls for alternative planning models at the community level to better accommodate older residents. In 2007, AARP joined forces with the National Association of Home Builders to launch the Livable Communities Awards, a program honoring neighborhoods with senior-friendly features such as walkable streets and parks, close access to medical and other services, and public transportation, along with smaller, more affordable homes that are universally designed and easy to maintain. "It's often difficult today to find a viable housing option for an aging parent near where you live if you are in low density suburbs," Kathryn Lawler, director of the Aging Atlanta project of the Atlanta Regional Commission, observed at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Washington DC last February. "Sixty may be the new 40, but there are certain things Botox and Viagra can't do for you. Your vision peaks in your 20s and hearing begins to decline in your 30s. And yet our current transportation systems continue to rely on people being able to see and hear well."
"Right now, we are still building for young families, but we do so at exclusion of other population groups," Lawler asserted. "It's time to stop building communities for people who aren't growing old. The fact that we have aging bodies and aging demographics is an important consideration as we move forward. This can't be a one-page addendum at the back of a 500-page transportation or community plan."
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Jenny Sullivan is senior editor, design, for BUILDER magazine.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Washington, DC.