Architects Dream Up Truly Inviting Housing Options for Aging Population

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By Kelly Vencill Sanchez
New advancements in aging-in-place strategies provide a positive outlook for the long term.

Like many in the United States who are keeping tabs on the estimated 76 million baby boomers who have already begun reaching retirement, Los Angeles architect John Dutton worries that the coming demographic shift could catch the U.S. napping. "It seems clear that we’re woefully underprepared for our increasingly aging population," Dutton says. "The models we have for housing are completely inadequate in design and temperament for this population."

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Architect Gary Gladwish designed a house on Orcas Island, Washington, for his mother, Marie, an artist. With wide, open planes, the home incorporates lasting solutions for all mobility stages.

Dutton has reason for concern. Demographers estimate that 10,000 baby boomers, Americans born between 1946 and 1964, turn 65 every day. Though older Americans may delay retirement in the traditional sense, the question is whether the existing housing stock will be able to meet their needs in the years to come.

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The Orcas Island house, whose steel exterior has patinaed to a rusty hue has a wide doorway with a pivoting door and a zero-step threshold.

The old models for seniors—retirement communities and independent- and assisted-living facilities—hold little appeal for boomers who came of age in the 1960s. Today there are myriad options: everything from "niche" communities, like Santa Fe, New Mexico’s RainbowVision, the first gay retirement community in the country, and cohousing, which has its roots in Denmark, to accessory dwellings, multigenerational and shared housing, and retrofitting one’s longtime home. 

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In a similar scenario, architect Eric Höweler and Meejin Yoon devised a layout for Yoon’s parents, Hannah and Jason, in Arlington, Virginia. The pair incorporated a gently sloping ramp and an open kitchen for the single-level house.

Homes for a Lifetime

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Inside, open spaces and natural light keep the main living area accessible and uplifting.

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Though the couple currently utilize all three levels, they could live comfortably on one, with the walk-out basement and the room over the garage both serving as caregiver space.

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“There’s onsite bike sharing, an electric vehicle charging station, and a common area that invites interaction between residents,” Soheil says.

Marie Gladwish considers herself lucky. Twenty years ago, she purchased a wooded hillside site on Orcas Island, Washington, with the idea of building a home for herself when she retired. Designed by her son, Seattle architect Gary Gladwish, the result is a series of open, graceful volumes, on one level, with plentiful natural light and stunning views. To ensure that she can remain at home, the 800-square-foot studio where she now paints and sculpts can become space for a live-in caregiver. "My mother wants to spend the rest of her life here," Gladwish says. "I wanted to make sure she could enjoy it whether she had a cane, a walker, or a wheelchair."

Now 76, with one hip replacement under her belt and another down the road, Marie appreciates features like zero-step thresholds; nonslip, radiant-heated concrete floors; wide doorways; and easy-to-reach shelves. "It’s an uplifting house," she says. "I wish I had some of these things years ago."

Clear across the country, on a narrow lot in Arlington, Virginia, Boston architects Eric Höweler and Meejin Yoon designed a modern house for her parents, Hannah and Jason Yoon. "Meejin’s dad told us, ‘This is the last house we want to live in,’" Höweler says. Though the couple are still in their 60s, the layout of one floor and two half-floors anticipates age-related limitations, something Höweler calls "future-proofing." A ramp leads from the street, past the garage, and through a courtyard to the entrance, which opens to the high-ceilinged, luminous main floor. Though the couple currently utilize all three levels, they could live comfortably on one, with the walk-out basement and the room over the garage both serving as caregiver space.

Pointing out the kitchen counter that could be modified to accommodate a wheelchair, the built-in bench in the master shower, and the guardrails outside, Höweler says, "We didn’t set out to design a house for aging; we had to find creative solutions." 

In San Diego, brothers Soheil and Nima Nakhshab, of Nakhshab Development & Design, specialize in creating options for multigenerational living in single-family residences, as well as larger developments like their LEED Platinum Sofia Lofts, which opened this fall. The project consists of a renovated 1908 house, with three bedrooms, and 16 new rental apartments, ranging from studios to two bedrooms, including two ADA-compliant units. 

"There’s onsite bike sharing, an electric vehicle charging station, and a common area that invites interaction between residents," Soheil says. "Whether they’re retirees or students or young couples, the idea was to create an environment they’ll never want to leave." 

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In San Diego, brothers Nima and Soheil Nakhshab built Sofia Lofts, a multigenerational micro-community with 16 units ranging from 600 to 1,000 square feet designed to accommodate tenants of all ages and abilities.

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Adds Soheil: “Whether they’re retirees or students or young couples, the idea was to create an environment they’ll never want to leave."

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