Friday, December 31, 2010

Universal design aids multi-generational living

From The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.:

Noél and Stephan Emswiler bought their Bartlett house thinking it would meet their family's every need, current and future.

Then an addition to the household changed everything.

"My mom had a house, but she decided it was becoming too much for her," Noél said. "It was evident that we needed to move her into our house."

There was just one problem: The house's only downstairs bedroom was Noél and Stephan's master suite, and Noél's mom couldn't handle the stairs.

"We obviously had to put her in our first-floor master suite," Noél said.

So in February, the Emswilers consulted Tom Sullivan, owner of Sullivan Home Plans and a certified professional building designer, to help them create a plan for a new third-floor master retreat that took advantage of their copious attic space and provided privacy for them and for Noél's mom.

Sullivan, who has been designing houses for four decades, said the Emswilers' situation is becoming increasingly common, and home design is starting to reflect it.

"Doorways, hallways and turnaround spaces are getting wider," he said. "People who don't have a need for wheelchair access are planning ahead. They figure this is the house they plan on staying in, so one day they're going to need it. It's a very wise thing to do."

It's called "universal design," and it's the wave of the home-planning future.

As of 2008, 16.1 percent of Americans were living in a household with at least two adult generations of family members, or a grandparent and at least one other generation, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data.

The rise in multigenerational households has a variety of causes, ranging from the overall aging of the population and the economy to cultural trends. Some aging parents are moving in with children. Some young college grads are moving in with parents, or recently divorced or unemployed children are moving in with parents -- and bringing young children with them.

It means more families are finding themselves in need of homes that serve family members at all ages and stages of life -- the hallmark of universal design.

"Families need areas for kids to play, areas for homework, areas for bills to be paid or work to be done, areas for grandparents to relax away from the kids," said Leslie Shankman Cohn, a registered interior designer with Jill Hertz Interior Design and a specialist in universal design.

Those needs are resulting in changes -- some subtle, some overt -- in the way we live in our homes, but also in the homes themselves.

"We're living more in our homes now," said architect Joey Hagan, a principal with Memphis-based Architecture Inc. "People are spending more time at home, particularly with the economy where it is. And that requires differences in design."

An example is the wide-open kitchen-slash-family room that is a staple in newly built houses and a popular focus for renovations.

"Families want to get together and entertain," Shankman Cohn said. "But along with that, you've maybe got two or three different cooks living in the house, and you're feeding larger amounts of people, so you need a larger kitchen."

Multiple master suites are another design trend that reflects the changing nature of modern households.

"We're seeing a lot of baby boomers whose kids have graduated from college and gotten married and had their own homes, but they've run out of space in Cordova," Sullivan said.

"They can't afford to build that four-bedroom, 4,500-square-foot house, but Mom and Dad don't need that space anymore. So they're moving from their Cordova home into the Germantown home and building Mom or Mom and Dad a mother-in-law wing."

In the past two years, the economy has caused not only an upswing in the number of consolidated households, but also a major halt on new home construction. Hagan said he hopes that when the building industry recovers, new houses still will reflect the hard lessons of the downturn.

"Homes are trending smaller and more functional," he said. "I think people are finally getting away from the McMansions. We're being a lot more efficient with our square footage."

And that includes planning for future accessibility, Hagan said.

"Making sure you have proper turning radiuses in the master bath," he said. "Allowing for better clearance in front of the toilet. Putting blocking in the walls for future grab bars, even if you don't put the bars in now. Using 36-inch doorways.

"You have to think through stuff like that when you build or renovate a house."

Hagan's seeing a spike in empty-nesters who, rather than sinking a lot of money into square footage, are investing instead in smart upgrades that will benefit them for years to come.

Those upgrades include storage solutions that take advantage of dead space, eco-friendly features that offer long-term money savings, and accessible, ground-floor amenities that improve resale by meeting the needs of multiple generations.

"I like to tell people to think about these things regardless of what their life situation is," Shankman Cohn said. "Easy access, wider hallways and doors. Better flow. No steps if possible, but at the very least a flex room plus a bedroom and full bath on the first floor."

The Emswilers hope to complete their 825-square-foot addition by mid-May. In the meantime, the couple has moved Noél's mother into the downstairs master suite and themselves into a second-floor bedroom.

"Prior to this (economic crisis) happening a couple years ago, in bigger homes it was almost a no-no to have just one bedroom down," Sullivan said.

It's a not-so-subtle shift. And it's not going away.

"We'll see more of this in the future, 10 years from now or when the economy gets better," said Shankman Cohn, who agrees with Hagan that building smarter doesn't have to mean building bigger.

"It's not the square footage," she said. "It's the quality of the space that counts."