Some home builders and developers are providing options to support multigenerational communities as they anticipate an imminent, important demographic shift.
Come 2034, there will be more adults age 65 and older than children, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections. This change has significant implications for the home building industry, as well as others such as health care. Statistically speaking, more Americans will be wondering if their homes will be a comfortable place to live out their later years or if they can afford to move to a place that would be better suited for them.
“Thinking about aging is the future of the building industry,” says Rodney Harrell, vice president of family, home, and community at AARP’s Public Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
Imperiled at Home?
According to AARP’s most recent Home and Community Preferences survey, nearly 8 in 10 adults who are 50 and older would prefer to stay in their home or community; for adults who are 65 and older, about 9 in 10 would prefer to stay put.
“It’s a misconception that most people want to move to Florida when they retire,” says Harrell. “Most of us want to stay where we’ve built community.”
But the likelihood that people’s living environments will need to change is high. By the time people reach 70, 35% will have limited mobility; and the majority of people older than 85 will have mobility issues. Falls become increasingly common with aging, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that falls can “threaten the health and independence of older adults.”
Meanwhile, very little of the current housing stock is designed for those with mobility challenges. While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) addresses public spaces and businesses, and the Fair Housing Act covers multifamily housing, designing single-family homes to help aging in place is largely voluntary, except for in a few rare cases.
Fortunately, it is not that difficult to design a home through this lens. Stairs and steps pose the greatest difficulty, and negotiating the bathroom is the next biggest issue, according to a 2020 report from the U.S. Census Bureau titled “Old Housing, New Needs: Are U.S. Homes Ready for an Aging Population?”
The report found that only 1 in 10 homes is “aging-ready.” These aging-ready homes address the two core needs—single-floor living and bathroom accessibility—by providing a zero-step entry, a first-floor bedroom, and a full first-floor bathroom with at least one accessibility feature.
“Aging-ready” and “universal design” are among the terms that have been developed to describe homes that accommodate limited mobility. (Because “accessibility” implies full wheelchair access—as in “ADA-accessible”—home builders and policy advocates tend to avoid using that term for anything short of ADA accessibility.)
But another word may be ready for its breakthrough moment. Advocates for the “visitability” movement have been working for decades to make three key features standard in all new-home construction: an entrance with a flush threshold; ground-floor doorways and hallways with minimum clearance for wheelchair access; and a ground-floor powder room large enough for a wheelchair user.
“[The] spirit [of visitability] says it’s not just unwise but unacceptable that new homes continue to be built with gross barriers—given how easy it is to build basic access in the great majority of new homes and given the harsh effects major barriers have on so many people’s lives,” states Visitability.org, a website produced by the Washington, D.C.–based National Council on Independent Living. Another key idea behind the term is that people should be able to visit others easily—that our social lives shouldn’t be impeded by mobility issues.
A few jurisdictions, including Pima County, Arizona, and the entire state of Vermont, mandate visitability in their building codes. The Inclusive Home Design Act, which would require visitability for single-family homes and townhouses constructed with the help of federal funds, has been introduced several times, most recently in 2022, but hasn’t yet become law.
Among those leading the way is national home builder Tri Pointe Homes, No. 17 on the latest Builder 100, which is leaning into this market. A few years ago, it launched a brand of active-adult/55-plus communities called Altis, and it unveiled its LiveAbility program for the general home buying audience in November 2022.
LiveAbility is a strategic marketing effort that repackages existing features and options to highlight how homes built by Tri Pointe are designed for long-term use. LiveAbility features that are standard in all Tri Pointe Homes include open floor plans, closets with variable-height rods, touch faucets, and rocker or toggle switches; other features are optional, such as microwaves in lower cabinets, sit-down showers with built-in seats, comfort-height toilets, blocking for grab bars, and motorized window shades.
LiveAbility focuses on greater maneuverability, comfort solutions, and limitless style, according to the company. The program is an example of how to market these features in a way that skirts the topic of aging. While the demographic shift is real, it would appear society still needs to come to terms with it. Ageism is one of the last socially acceptable prejudices, according to psychologists. Home builders can be sensitive to this stigma by talking more about the convenience that designing for the future offers to buyers of all ages.
“It’s always important to keep in mind that the 55-plus demographic doesn’t see themselves as old, and that ‘aging in place’ applies to their parents and not them,” explains Paul Hanson, president of franchising and product development for Epcon Communities, which ranks No. 50 on the Builder 100. “But talking about the benefits and the features and how they will give them more longevity and permanence in the house resonates with them.”
This strategy is working: Nearly 75% of buyers in its 55-plus communities (Epcon builds in about 90 of them, says Hanson) have opted for the universal design upgrade, which includes wider doorways and hallways, more space around the kitchen island, and a curbless shower in the primary suite. Epcon has started to offer the universal design option in its townhomes in all-age developments, and more than one-third of those buyers opt in.
Regal Builders, the developer of a 55-plus community called Noble’s Pond in Delaware, doesn’t even mention universal design features that come standard with its homes, such as first-floor primary suites and zero-step entryways, on its website.
“We believe very firmly in universal design—in the aesthetics of it as well as in the practicality and use,” says Beth Haynes, the company’s director of marketing, who is a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) and the chair of the NAHB’s 55+ Housing Industry Council. “These are great features that most generations and individuals can appreciate. It’s just that they also have a practical function by allowing the home to easily adapt to you. From the consumer perspective, it just makes for a beautiful home.”
It’s true that modern floor plans with open spaces like great rooms and graciously sized corridors are well suited for entertaining as well as accommodating those with mobility issues, and single-level living is convenient while also eliminating potentially treacherous stairs. Homes with a lot of natural light are inherently appealing, but are also easier to navigate by those with aging eyes.
“We’re finding ourselves designing wider corridors of 44 inches, which helps with maneuverability and creates enough flexibility for whatever happens in life. If you have these predesigned, it just becomes part of the narrative without talking explicitly about accessibility,” says architect Annya Ramirez at Marvel, which has offices in New York, Virginia, and Puerto Rico.
From an economic perspective, new-home builders say the added cost is minimal when aging-ready features are designed into the house from the start. The universal design option costs around $1,000 for buyers in Epcon’s 55-plus communities, according to Hanson, and is a few hundred dollars less for purchasers of Epcon’s townhomes.
California builder City Ventures, which has 300 to 500 starts a year, offers a floor plan with an optional ground-floor bedroom and bath in most of its projects. Even if the homeowner chooses the standard option for that floor plan, the builder still pre-plumbs for a bathroom, just in case their clients’ needs change in the future. It costs the builder hundreds of dollars to pre-plumb, whereas it would cost the homeowner thousands of dollars to tear up the foundation and re-pipe.
“We’re building it forward, which is our company’s tagline,” says Andrea Duff, director of design at City Ventures.
Earlier this year in May, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, drew attention to an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” and the grave health risks associated with both. For example, social isolation and loneliness have been linked to a 50% increase in risk of dementia in older adults. An estimated one-quarter of older Americans who live outside of retirement communities experience social isolation, and 1 in 2 adults reported experiencing loneliness even before the pandemic.
Connecting with friends and family can be harder with age and associated life events such as retirement or losing loved ones. The suburbs can be an isolating environment for older people, who often tend to cut back on driving as slower reflexes and weakened eyesight make it more difficult. Adults who stop driving are more likely to experience social isolation, according to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Aging and Health.
Another reason to get out of the house: Both casual social encounters and close friendships are beneficial. A recent study published in the Journal of Aging Studies found that having more casual connections (referred to by sociologists as “weak ties”) was correlated with lower levels of loneliness.
“A greater number of weak ties increases the likelihood of support and engagement when needed, reciprocity of relationships, and access to new social groups and networks,” the study authors wrote. As such, it’s not surprising that investors have been bullish about age-restricted communities, which are for renters or home buyers at or above a certain age and often offer resort-style amenities that promote socialization, such as indoor pickleball courts and demonstration kitchens for cooking classes.
Because being part of a community is so critical to aging well, Harrell and other advocates would like to see “aging in place” stand for more than just accessibility within the home. AARP’s Livability Index, available online, uses a wide lens to determine what makes a great place to live; by typing in an address or a city, users can see how areas rank in terms of proximity to key destinations, but also by metrics such as opportunities for civic engagement and ease of voting.
“I’d like to broaden the idea from ‘aging within the exact four walls you’re living in’ to ‘aging in your community,’” explains Jennifer Molinsky, project director of the Housing an Aging Society Program at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Circle of Life
Across the U.S., accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are becoming more common as jurisdictions make it easier for homeowners to add a separate unit to their property; some people build an ADU with the intent of moving in after retiring and renting out the main house for additional income.
At Nexton, a 5,000-acre planned community in South Carolina designed to support the “arc of life,” builder New Leaf is offering a detached outbuilding as an option for some floor plans, which can be outfitted as an ADU with a full kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and washer and dryer hookups. Other Nexton builders who have experience designing for aging in place include Homes by Dickerson, which can incorporate an elevator into its custom floor plans, and Saussy Burbank, which has designed features such as roll-out and pull-down cabinet shelving and closets with pull-down rods.
“Not only can our builders incorporate universal design concepts to accommodate lifestyle changes, but our community offers opportunities to work, eat, shop, and even visit health care providers,” says Brent Gibadlo, senior vice president of development at Brookfield Properties at Nexton, which features a network of trails and golf cart paths. “This allows residents to conveniently connect with others and establish a healthy and efficient lifestyle.”
Walkability is also key to Indigo, a 235-acre “agrihood” community near Houston, designed around a 42-acre working farm. The community includes a wide range of housing types, including cottages that don’t have garages, driveways, or the responsibility of landscape maintenance. They are also slated to cost about $100,000 less than the median selling price for a home in the area. These cottages, nearly all of which have a ground-floor bedroom suite, are designed to be attractive—and affordable—to older adults who would like to age in place.
“Especially in Houston, our development pattern has really done a disservice to a lot of people,” says Scott Snodgrass, founding partner of Meristem Communities, the developer of Indigo. “We’re only building 3,400-square-foot homes with four to five bedrooms for two-parents-with-kids families. It’s not very efficient for the buyer financially or from an infrastructure point of view. When we started planning Indigo, we looked at the whole life cycle of the community, not just the first buyer, and intentionally designed naturally affordable housing for people at different stages. The goal is that you never have to leave your community to get the house you want or need.”
According to Snodgrass, 85% of the homes will be within a five-minute walk of Indigo Commons, a new commercial and retail center. In that central core, there are places to sit down roughly every 150 feet, with shade to protect people from the hot Texas sun. Snodgrass’ team is also researching programming for older adults as well as offerings with multigenerational appeal.
One offering that has broad appeal is a community garden. “It’s an outdoor activity that provides social connection and fresh food—it’s the trifecta,” says architect Vanna Whitney at San Francisco–based architecture firm Leddy Maytum Stacy, who works on multifamily housing. “You can implement it in urban and suburban areas, and raised garden beds mean that people don’t have to bend down.”
Whitney designs places where people tend to congregate, like a central mail area, with nice lighting and benches to promote chance connections. She is also talking to clients about building in resiliency by incorporating solar power with a battery backup system. If the power goes out, people who depend on things like an electric wheelchair, medication that requires refrigeration, or other medical equipment will be taken care of without interruption.
“Planning communities to support older adults is so consistent with planning communities to support everyone else,” says Brad Winick, the founder of consulting firm Planning/Aging in Chicago. “It doesn’t matter who the improvements are intended for, they benefit everyone.”