What reason is so important or so costly that anyone could continue building new homes that are not usable by some members of our society? It seems that all new houses should allow seniors and those with limited abilities to maintain a degree of independence in their home. Simple, everyday activities such as going through doorways, opening windows, using a dishwasher, or taking a bath can be extremely difficult for some people. Including a few special features in home design can make these activities possible and even easy.
This is a guest post by Mike Kephart of Kephart Living, LLC, a design and consulting firm dedicated to the support and resurgence of the Sidekick Home or Accessory Dwelling Unit with offices in Denver, CO.
However, we don’t do anything in this country just because it’s the right thing to do. We either legislate or we wait until there is an economic benefit to do so. The US congress adopted The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the accessibility Amendments to the Fair Housing Act (FHA) both in the early 90s. The intent of these laws was to regulate the design of buildings to make new buildings more accessible to the disabled. However these laws did not cover single-family houses, duplexes and triplexes, and it doesn’t appear that this issue will be addressed anytime soon.
So, if you are one of those searching for an economic justification to offer accessible small homes you need look no further than the Whitehouse for the fastest growing demographic in the United States. When Barack Obama’s mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. that action added the Whitehouse to the roles of multi-generational households. These households grew by 30 percent between 1990 and 2000, and have increased 57 percent between 2000 and 2007, not including the past two years of economic crisis and home foreclosures, according to the U.S. Census. There are 77 million baby boomers that will begin to turn 65 in two years, not to mention another 25 million older Americans who are already over 65. Add to that a long list of disabled persons as a result of wars, accidents, and diseases and the total adds up to nearly half of the 300 million people in our country.
As much as I would like to see a nice little house or Accessory Dwelling Unit behind the Whitehouse, that house is large enough for one more person, but that’s not the case with most homes. Basements and attics can be finished to make room for an elderly family member but these difficult to reach spaces are not the most accessible to someone with mobility issues. The kids can be moved to those places or an addition can be built with a bedroom for the elder. Many families are doing these things right now but these solutions are temporary at best. Family animosities may build up when grandmother or weird Uncle Al moves in. Power struggles can arise over who is in charge of the kitchen and privacy may be compromised.
There are beautiful stories as well but the best ones come from situations that give everyone control over their private lives. A close friend of mine built a second living unit attached to the side of his house for his father, who lived there compatibly for nearly 20 years. He’s gone now and the living unit is an ideal rental, which provides extra income. According to my friend the secret to their compatible living arrangement was a few simple rules. No drop-in visits, all visits to either home must be proceeded by a phone call and agreement by the other. Although there was a door connecting the two kitchens it was to be used only in emergencies. At all other times the visitor must use the front door. That was it, simple respect for one another’s privacy and each with control of their own.
This is where Small Houses come in. ADU, Accessory Dwelling Unit, ordinances are being adopted by communities across the country. The phenomena began in the early 90s in California, no surprise there, with a state law mandating that all municipalities adopt governing regulations for ADUs. Since that time the idea has caught on in Oregon and Washington State and east to Texas and Colorado, Minnesota, Ohio, Vermont and Florida. ADUs are usually regulated in size to less than 800 square feet and in other ways individual to each municipality. Design is often regulated to match the primary house on the property in color, materials and roof slopes. This is one way for cities to begin to address the growing economic divide and the expected surge of aging baby boomers now entering their 60s. Small houses in backyards can be rented after Mom moves to a care facility and the affordable housing choices in good neighborhoods will help with the diversity of populations.
The example shown was built in 2008 to 2009 and was a bit backwards as ADUs go. The little 600 square foot house (green in the photo) existed and we added a 2-bedroom 1160 square foot two story primary house in the front (red in photo). The typical property has a main or primary house set close to the street. The ADU is then added in the large backyard.
Now to the nut of the problem, is it more challenging to design accessible small homes than larger ones without noticeable differences in floor plans? I’ll have more on this in my next post.