Is This a Housing Revolution for Aging Boomers?

This is Minka One, under construction. (Photo: Minka )

Geriatrician Dr. Bill Thomas is a fascinating man who's turning the idea of how we age upside-down. He rails against the so-called "continuum of care," where we move from what Bob Tedeschi of STAT calls the "grim march — from independent living, to assisted living, to nursing homes, to memory units, and to the grave." He promotes instead what he calls MESH: tools that help people Move, Eat, Sleep and Heal.

He's on to something here, a doctor talking about food and fitness and comfort. I've been thinking about it as an architect, having watched my parents’ generation get old and die, generally unhappily and in the wrong kind of place for their needs at the time. Since learning about Thomas, I've spent some time on his ChangingAging website and really like what he's saying.

Then there's Minka, the 330-square-foot house that he has just built. He tells STAT:

"I spent my career trying to change the nursing home industry," he said. "But I’ve come to realize it’s not really going to change. So now what I’ve got to do is make it so people don’t need nursing homes in the first place. That what this is about."

It is, as described by Tedeschi in STAT, a small, senior-friendly home that costs about $75K and could be "clustered like mushrooms in tight groups or tucked onto a homeowner’s existing property so caregivers or children can occupy the larger house and help when needed."

Interior of MINKA one
Interior of a MINKA cottage. (Photo: MINKA via Facebook)

Tedeschi describes this particular house (above) as warm, light and roomy, with four oversized windows overlooking the lake where it's sited near Oswego, New York. It has a big accessible bathroom and an IKEA kitchen with a lot of drawers, although not a particularly accessible design in this model.

Thomas says this isn’t a tiny house; "Tiny houses are terrible for older people." No argument there! And in plan and 330-square-foot floor area, it's not a tiny house at all, but a pretty standard studio apartment in a box. So the complaints that "a very small percentage of people will be interested in a tiny house" are misguided. This is as big as almost any retirement home apartment.

A community cluster

These are Greenwood Avenue Cottages. (Photo: Ross Chapin Architect)

The idea of people living in small houses "clustered like mushrooms" has also been proven to be very attractive, as demonstrated by Ross Chapin with his "pocket neighborhoods" of small houses set around green courtyards. It has been done a lot in the United Kingdom as well.

The difference here is that Thomas is also selling a technology, not just a way of living. "The future of independence-optimized living is a shift to highly distributed, digitally connected, and compact housing that is continuously modified to meet the specific needs of the people living in them." On the Minka website they describe how they "combine robotics and scalable cloud-based digital systems to print dwellings better, cheaper, faster and greener than traditional construction methods. We have learned how to fold plywood into the sturdy beams and columns that are the backbone of a Minka Dwelling’s modular, post-and-beam and infill panel system."

CNC Machine
Facit Homes utilizes technology that creates plywood 'cassettes,' making assembly onsite a snap. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

The building system is, in fact, a somewhat more primitive version of what FACIT is doing in the U.K., using CNC routers to cut plywood into what FACIT calls "cassettes" that are assembled on site. I've written that digital fabrication will revolutionize architecture and have admired the concept many times on sister site TreeHugger; it's ingenious and flexible, but it hasn't proven to be cheaper.

concrete slab
Pouring the concrete slab for a MINKA house. (Photo: MINKA via Facebook)

But this method delivers a really high quality product. Judging by the thickness of Styrofoam in those Minka walls, these are well-insulated buildings, and judging by the prototype on Facebook, well-built.

I cannot tell if the concrete slab is heated or not, but there isn’t much insulation around the edge of it and that floor may be cold in winter. That big wall of Andersen double-glazed windows might be draughty when the cold wind blows off that lake; I'm not sure that thermally, this house will be really comfortable on the coldest days, but then that's why I like the Passive House standard, which would probably result in fewer and better windows and more insulation underfoot.

(I should also mention that blue Styrofoam SM, which is what you're seeing in the photo above, is probably the least green insulation you can buy; it's made from fossil fuels, full of toxic flame retardants and still requires a greenhouse gas as a blowing agent. It doesn't belong in green buildings.)

Digital fabrication systems like FACIT and MINKA, with designs going straight to CNC machine, have real promise in delivering fast and flexible housing, but I'm not convinced that building technology is what has been the problem up to this point. This is a nice studio apartment in a box that could have been made of anything; sometimes we get carried away with how we build instead of concentrating on what we build. What matters is the cluster and the community.

Cottage Square
Bruce Tolar's Cottage Square in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. (Photo: Ben Brown, Placemakers)

Close to a decade ago, when the Katrina Cottage was getting all the buzz, Ben Brown of PlaceMakers noted that the house was nice, but not the most important thing, and that "It takes a town."

If you want to make the move from a conventional, 2,500-square-foot home to one half that size appealing, you can’t do it with design alone or even with the combination of home and neighborhood design. The trick to living large in small spaces is to have great public places to go to – preferably by foot or on a bike – once you’re outside your private retreat ... the smaller the nest, the bigger the balancing need for community.

Thomas says he's working toward building communities, which is key; as architect Ross Chapin notes, "Context is everything." In Senior Housing News, Thomas describes it as MAGIC: "multi-ability/multi-generational inclusive communities." He's building the first one at the University of Southern Indiana, where "the idea is to create housing for different generations and abilities all in the same cluster on campus.

But I worry that he has fallen in love with a building technology that might not be suitable everywhere, that isn’t the greenest, healthiest or most flexible. Once it is built, it's a stretch to say that it can be "continuously modified to meet the specific needs of the people living in them." It's not a bunch of Lego blocks that can be reassembled at will, but a house that is built and sealed and done.

Besides, people don't need housing that is continuously modified, and people certainly don't care if their little home is built out of CNC router-cut plywood. The building technology is almost irrelevant; context is everything.