Accessibility Watch: Retrofitting

A new trend is emerging as the baby boom grows older. Some homes and communities are designed to allow residents to age-in-place, or for young people to begin their lives in a house that can, eventually, be adapted as their mobility and accessibility needs change over time. These forward-thinking models provide an excellent vision for the future of housing. They can also serve as inspiration for improvements in consumer goods and the design of spaces, beginning today.

These new homes are ahead of the curve. They consider accessible space from the perspective of Universal Design, taking a more holistic approach to accessibility than most regulated public places. Over the past 20 years the Americans with Disabilities Act has had little to do with residential design. Suddenly, this summer, changes to ADA were passed to ensure that, in the future, a minimum of 5% of all housing built for sale to individual owners in the US will be accessible. This is a great amendment. Now for the first time some new housing developments will be required to accommodate the needs of the aging and the disabled. There is, of course, room for improvement; many older residences that fall outside of ADA still need to be adapted for safety and accessibility.

In a survey she conducted for Change Observer, my fellow Metropolis blogger, Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson told the story of a small number of radical visionaries in New Visions of Home. These folks live in accessible spaces, achieved through the design and construction of new housing, the introduction of communal living, or in one case, the massive retro-fit of an existing mid-century house; all excellent examples of living spaces and lifestyles to come. But for those who cannot afford such big fixes, smaller, less expensive retrofits will have to do. The most common are furniture-scale products like plastic tub chairs and grab bars that adapt an existing environment cheaply and quickly.

In our Northeastern suburbs, aging residents are often saddled with mid-century mass-produced housing in dire need of retrofitting. These tracts of cute colonials and capes were built for their parents’ generation, who after WWII needed homes for their young families. These houses weren’t intended as places for anyone to grow old in or to admit to the infirmities that come with age and time, yet retrofitting these homes is becoming necessary.

Already some examples of small adaptive measures are being experimented with. A recent New York Times article, A Fast-Paced City Tries to Be a Gentler Place to Grow Old, told of new plans such as creating districts that are more accessible, and extending the time allotted to cross streets at hundreds of intersections, which is advantageous to all pedestrians, not only the aging.

79 million baby boomers account for an impressive market segment. Will this potentially massive demand create a new market? As for the things that go into our homes, will designers, manufacturers, and retailers feel that it is worth their while to provide considerately designed and accessible goods, at every scale?

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