Like trains running on parallel tracks, sustainable design and Universal Design have been coursing their separate ways through the A&D community, gradually picking up steam over the years. At last, they have caught up with each other at a crossroads called Design-for-Aging, and the timing couldn’t be more fortuitous.
Although few would have thought much about it 20 years ago, sustainable design and design for aging are ideally suited for one another. What’s more sustainable than helping someone to remain in their home rather than move to a new building or facility? Beyond that, many of the features and products available today complement both sustainable and universal solutions. Add to the mix the aging of the eco-aware baby boomers and you have a match made in design heaven.
SHADES OF GREY AND GREEN
Despite the obvious benefits, selling older homeowners on green and sustainable options does not come easy. Surveys of homeowners 50 and over show that the plurality of older Americans do not place a high priority on green or sustainable design features when considering purchasing or remodeling a home. At the same time, when asked what they do want most, they give a very high ranking to saving on energy and water costs, a healthy environment and ease of maintenance. In other words, what has been true of universal or accessible design for older clients for years is also true of sustainable design: They don’t want to pay for the idea, but they will pay for the benefits.
Surprisingly perhaps, this also holds true for baby boomers. Boomers did not invent the environmental movement, but they grew up with it through the 70s and beyond, coming of age during the gas shortages, energy crises, blackouts and brownouts, oil spills, global warming, and so on. Nonetheless, boomers as a group say they are not more inclined to pay extra for a green home unless they can be shown that the cost will be offset by energy or other savings later on or that the home will increase in value as a result.
This past October, the ASID California San Diego Chapter participated in a daylong “Green Retirement” workshop — “a retirement planning event with an environmental twist” — along with AARP California and Revisions Resources, a local nonprofit agency that provides information and support to older San Diegans. In this case, “green” stood for sustainable and, yes, dollars. The pitch: Get financial planning and management advice AND learn how to save money while saving energy. “Interior designers from ASID will discuss how to make your home safe, comfortable, and sustainable,” declared the announcement on the AARP website. For retirees living on a fixed income, money talks louder than environmentalism.
FUNCTIONAL AND FRUGAL
When dealing with older clients, therefore, it is important to focus on the monetary, health and design benefits of green and universal solutions. States Michael Thomas, FASID, co-author of Design for Residential Aging in Place and president of the Design Alliance for Accessible Sustainable Environments (DAASE), an organization that promotes independent living through the design of safe, secure and sustainable environments, “By making a few simple choices such as high efficiency appliances, solar-supportive power sources, low-maintenance fabrics and furnishings, and interior finishes that support good indoor air quality, boomers will be able to live in their own healthy places for a much longer period of time.”
So what do boomers want? To find out, D.C.-based architect Jeffrey Levine, AIA, partnered with James Mueller, BID, an industrial designer and co-author of The Seven Principles of Universal Design, to create a model townhouse for empty-nester boomers wanting to leave the suburbs and move back into a more dynamic urban environment. Called “Welcome Home,” the model posited that active, younger-minded boomers would be looking for three key elements in their next home: universal or accessible design, green or eco-friendly design, and a sophisticated, contemporary aesthetic, or “cool” design. These concepts were embodied in some 80 different exterior and interior design and construction elements. In querying architects, builders, designers and homeowners about their model, they discovered that boomers were fairly pragmatic in their choices. They valued most accessibility, safety, comfort and convenience, and cost-savings. As they thought about where they might be spending the rest of their lives, sustainability, other than energy and water conservation, and aesthetics were less important than mobility and ease of use.
The relatively low ranking of sustainable features surprised Levine, who had assumed boomers would be attracted to a more eco-friendly design. But those that did appeal, such as Energy Star appliances, water-conserving fixtures and LED lighting, fit the overall pattern of giving the highest consideration to functionality and frugality.
Similarly, a survey conducted earlier this year by the Sustainable Furnishings Council found that consumers say they are interested in purchasing sustainable furnishings but only if the price and style are comparable to other options. Moreover, notes SFC executive director Susan Inglis, consumers often are unaware of the benefits of sustainable furnishings and require additional information or education in order to fully appreciate their value.
HAVING IT ALL
Fortunately for designers, today there is a wide range of products available to satisfy even the most skeptical of clients. Here are some of the ways green and universal design are pairing up to address older homeowners’ wants and needs:
- Hands-free touch- or sensor-controlled bathroom and kitchen fixtures benefit those with arthritis or dexterity issues while conserving water.
- Bath and shower fixtures with adjustable temperature and water-flow settings help prevent accidental scalding while conserving energy and water.
- LED task lighting, combined with CFL ambient lighting, provides the extra light older eyes need, helps prevent accidents and falls, and saves on energy.
- Wall-mounted toilets are adjustable for wheelchair use or joint problems. Some models have an antibacterial coating for easier cleaning and health. Most require less water to flush.
- Renewable, reuse cork flooring is easier on hips and backs, provides a firm but non-slip surface for mobility devices, is easy to maintain, and can be digitally printed to resemble stone, wood or tile. Bamboo and wood from sustainably managed forests are other options.
- Low-VOC finishes for cabinets, counters and walls prevent off gassing and, along with filtration systems with HEPA-filters, ensure healthier indoor air quality and lower risk of environmentally mediated diseases.
- Natural, repurposed composite, non-porous countertops help prevent the spread of bacteria and reduce glare.
- Induction cooktops prevent burns or accidental fires, have easy-to-use touch-control panels, are easy to clean, heat quickly, release less than half the heat of a gas stove, and require less energy than a regular stove.
- Smart-control thermostats with multiple settings save on energy while maintaining a comfortable temperature throughout the day and throughout the year. Once installed and programmed, they require almost no maintenance.
- Low-maintenance eco-fabrics made from renewable natural fibers and dyes protect the environment from harmful chemicals and occupants from airborne contaminants.
These are just some of the many products available today that can be used in a sustainable, universally designed home. Many are priced competitively and have lower lifecycle costs for utility use, cleaning and maintenance.
Accessibility, mobility, comfort, easy maintenance, healthy and safe environment, lower utility bills, and cost savings, too. Just like when they were younger, boomers want it all. It sounds like a tall order, but by combining sustainable and universal design approaches, they can have it all and enjoy quality, independent living for years to come.
Michael J. Berens is a freelance researcher, writer and editor with extensive experience in the converging fields of aging and design.