Architects Know What Aging Boomers Want, but Are They Giving Them What They Need?

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Now what about a main floor master bedroom?. (Photo: 'Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House')

When Mr. Blandings wanted to build his dream house, he went to an architect, because architects are supposed to know how to design houses that meet their clients' needs. But that movie came out in 1948 and it seems that things have changed since then.

Every quarter, the American Institute of Architects checks in with over 500 architects doing residential work to find out what the current trends are in housing. It is a snapshot of what people are buying and what architects are delivering, and it has very little to do with needs and a lot to do with wants.

For instance, according to a press release, this year buyers are big on mud rooms, home offices and outdoor living areas. But they also want more rooms inside for the kids who never leave or rooms where the owners can be taken care of as they age.

As baby boomers age and graduates find it harder to afford to live on their own, multi-generational living options are also growing in popularity. It’s not just a “mother-in-law” apartment or basement bedroom homeowners want. Many are looking for accommodations for several generations including the primary family with kids, adult children, in-laws and grandparents. Features include:
  • First-floor master bedrooms
  • Wider doors and hallways and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and living areas
  • Ramps and elevators
  • Multiple laundry rooms
disability prevalence as you age
What goes wrong first when you get old. (Photo: JCHS)

What goes wrong first when you get old. (Image: JCHS)

But as we have noted before, the percentage of seniors who end up in wheelchairs is very small and it usually happens when they are very old. In fact, you are more likely to lose the ability to drive long before you lose the ability to walk. The numbers show the first things to go fall under “household activity” — meal preparation, food shopping, using the telephone, taking medication, money management, housework and driving.

“Not surprisingly demand for greater accessibility features continues to be strong,” said AIA Chief Economist, Kermit Baker. “Whether it’s a result of generally lower mobility or the aging baby-boomer population, homeowners are preparing for the future.”

But we keep building big suburban houses that people think they can stay in forever, even though they require more housework, management and more driving. I suppose all those kids who have stayed at home can do that stuff. But if they do move out and their aging parents are on their own, they may find they have a problem. All these separate rooms require a lot of housework and a lot of management, and a bigger footprint. The problem with all these multiple laundry rooms and single-floor houses is that they are designed for when people can't walk, but in the process, they bring that time closer. As noted in a previous post,

The Harvard Alumni Study found that men who average at least eight flights a day enjoy a 33 percent lower mortality rate than men who are sedentary — and that’s even better than the 22 percent lower death rate men earned by walking 1.3 miles a day.

People need exercise. Stairs are good for you. It makes sense to have a ground floor bathroom and perhaps that home office can be designed to also become a bedroom later, but it is possibly counterproductive to design all these things up front for something that might well be 20 years out.

the Jetsons
Everybody wants what the Jetsons had. (Photo: The Jetsons)

Everybody wants what the Jetsons had. (Image: The Jetsons)

And then there’s the technology!

It’s not just rooms that buyers and owners are interested in, it’s the technology available to use them more effectively. From smart thermostats to tank-less water heaters, homeowners want more efficient, lower-maintenance ways to control their lights, heating, water and electrical systems. Solar panels, backup generators, wireless sound systems, home automation, and more effective air conditioning, replenishing [?], and heating systems are also high on the “must have” list.

So complicated, so much stuff. All the kind of stuff that gets hard to use when you get old, that falls under that "household activity" category that goes first. And so much of this stuff is very high maintenance, all that automation and smart technology. They're going to need an extra bedroom suite just for the on-site tech support.

The dumb, simple ways of making life better, like lots of insulation, don't seem to show up on the radar. The word "resilience" doesn't come into play; if you are a senior trapped in your home, it would be nice to know that you won't freeze if the heat goes out or boil if the AC dies.

what people want
People want single-floor living and more. (Photo: AIA)

People want single-floor living and more. (Image: AIA)

What should architects be talking to their clients about?

If I was still practicing architecture and someone came to me today for a house they can age in, I would have a couple of suggestions:

Live in a walkable community where you can get the basic essentials without driving. The walk is good for you! And you won't be trapped.

Keep it simple. Instead of smart thermostats, invest in dumb insulation.

Keep it small. The less stuff you have to maintain, the easier it is as you get older.

Keep it flexible. Needs change, and the stand-alone home office might become a bedroom. The powder room on the main floor should be big enough to have a shower, too. But don't build a separate room for every function now.

Keep it healthy. No carpets to gather dirt or trip on, no materials giving out volatile chemicals, and really good mechanical ventilation to bring in filtered air all year round.

Ignore today's smart technology. In five years it will all be obsolete; the world is changing so quickly you cannot plan ahead for when you might need it.

Think about an apartment or co-housing instead. People need a social life, neighbors and friends, and when you live at higher densities, you have more stores, restaurants and doctors close by.

But then one of the reasons I am no longer an architect is that I always thought I knew what clients needed instead of what they wanted. But it would be nice if professional designers would base their advice and their designs on research instead of anecdata, and would design to keep people healthy instead of just preparing for when they are not.