The BUILDER Chōwa Concept Home project that was unveiled last month just outside Las Vegas provides the U.S. home building industry with a model for how to design and construct modern homes that meet occupants’ needs and wants today, and are capable of “aging in place” as their needs change over the years.
I’ve been following this project, led by Japan's largest home building company, Sekisui House, its U.S. subsidiary Woodside Homes, and BUILDER Online, for the last few months. My focus has largely been on how the Japanese philosophy of “chōwa”--“the spirit of partnership and life balance”--has informed the design, selection of building materials and unique construction processes, and integration of smart home technologies to promote environmental sustainability, support occupants’ health and wellness, and protect against the consequences of climate change.
Now, let’s look at how the convergence of these elements achieves Sekisui House’s approach to lifelong housing--a model it calls “Smart Universal Design”.
Sekisui House began its research into lifelong housing, or aging in place, in 1975. This research then became part of the company’s mission statement in its pursuit of building homes where people can live long, vibrant lives. The company has conducted (and continues to do so) a diverse range of lifestyle related research at its R&D facilities, to provide homes of comfort, safety and security to a wide range of families with diverse and varying lifestyles.
The BUILDER Chōwa Concept Home represents the culmination of more than 40 years of research and home building experience around the world that addresses the core design for common human need of comfort for all occupants--children, the elderly, and people with all kinds of abilities.
Think about homeowners who comprise Generation X, the country’s largest home buyer segment. Their so-called “nuclear family” is a mash-up of two life stages: They have children of their own, and increasingly, are caring for elderly parents or other relatives who also live in the home. And each demographic has its own unique needs.
As any new parent will tell you, bringing a baby home means going through the entire house with a magnifying glass looking for potential hazards that increase in number and variety as they learn to crawl and walk. It can seem like today, the tabletops, power outlets, stairs, shelving units, kitchen appliances and doorknobs that were unreachable yesterday are suddenly within easy grasp of small, curious hands.
Sekisui House’s Smart UD strikes the balance between helping kids have fun and learn in a safe and stimulating environment, while ensuring potential hazards are always out of reach. The design accounts for three factors of kids’ bodies and behavior: small, fragile and little experience.
On the other end of the aging spectrum are the grandparents. According to a Pew Research Center survey, nearly 79 million adults in the United States, or 31.9 percent of the adult population, live in a “shared household,” meaning one in which two or more adults not intimately attached live in the same home. Older parents moving in with their adult children make up a much larger component of this “shared living” arrangement than they did a generation ago.
A home’s elderly occupants may have difficulty climbing up and down stairs, and the BUILDER Chōwa Concept Home does feature an elevator to make moving between the first and second floors quick and easy. But it also features the Home+ first-floor suite that can serve as living quarters for any guest, family member or elderly parents during the years one or more of them may require daily care and tending. The suite lends full privacy for sleeping, bathing, and daily activities. It also has direct access to the outdoors, and to a one-car garage, giving the Home+ Suite privacy and independence.
Let’s not forget about the homeowners--the Gen X’ers. It’s not unusual for both parents to work full-time, raise children and care for their parents. They’re incredibly busy, stressed and don’t have much free time. But they still require their own space to relax and pursue their hobbies, or work from home. The second-floor master suite provides that sanctuary.
The buffered entry creates a feeling of entering a peaceful space that is free of complexity, clutter, and distraction. The bedroom is also a microcosm of the entire home’s focus on health and wellness for all occupants.
The bedroom is controlled by a smart home health and well-being system. The system has water purification technologies with on-site water testing, third-party lab analysis, and historical regional data. The lighting HVAC and sensors are operated by the smart home health hub that communicates with all the elements to help deliver a healthier whole-home environment. It is controlled by an app that displays key wellness metrics such as indoor and outdoor air quality data. The system also has a recessed air quality sensor to monitor indoor air pollutants, advanced air purification to track allergens, pathogens, and volatile organic compounds. A circadian lighting system regulates energy levels, moods, and sleep-wake cycles.
The garage not only serves as space for a hybrid-fueled vehicle and storage for recreational gear, it also has dedicated space for an activity zone for projects, including woodworking or other hobbies, as well as staging for recreational activities.
Of course, the parents still have to get work done, and an increasing number of them don’t want to wait for one of their kids to grow up and leave home to convert a bedroom into a pseudo office.
One Gallup survey found that 43% of Americans work from home occasionally. That’s up from 39% of those who did in 2012. And U.S. Census data indicates that 5.2% of U.S. workers worked at home full-time in 2017--that’s about 8 million people. And more people would work from home if they could. LinkedIn reports that 82% of workers they polled want to work from home at least one day per week, and 57% want to work from home at least three days per week.
Realizing this goal requires a fully equipped space that enables them to work without distraction. The “flex-space” area of the upstairs suite fits the bill perfectly.
The Year 2030
These elements address the needs of the home’s occupants today. 10 years from now, the homeowners' lives will be very different. They’ll be in their late 50’s/early 60’s, and their toddlers and grade school-aged kids have grown into teen-agers, or have already left home for college, military service, jobs, etc.
What likely won’t change is their need to continue working full time, with retirement not on the near horizon. Over the past 20 years, the share of Americans working in their 70s has risen from less than 10% to nearly 15%, according to US Census bureau data.
The Year 2040+
As the Gen X’ers enter their 70’s, they may find their physical limitations resemble those of their elderly parents 20 years ago. The accommodations the BUILDER Chōwa Concept Home made for their parents--i.e., the first floor master suite, caregiver suite, elevator, etc., become critical to their own ability to stay in their homes, continue working if necessary, and remain part of their neighborhoods and larger communities.
The BUILDER Chōwa Concept Home provides a the first US experiment for incorporating Sekisui House’s Smart Universal Design into a home that gives flexibility to all occupants today, tomorrow and 20+ years from now. And it is not a cookie-cutter model--I’m excited to see how American builders incorporate their own innovative ideas to conceive new design elements and incorporate the latest and greatest smart home technologies to build homes that evolve with the 21st century version of the nuclear family.
For more information, please visit the BUILDER Chōwa Concept Home website.