Retrofit for Safety

Making homes accessible for the elderly and disabled is a growth industry.

Thirty or so years ago, Maureen Torgerson was sitting with her mother-in-law on the front porch of the family’s home by the South River in Annapolis. A plan was already in place: When the time came, the elder Torgersons would move to a nearby retirement community and Maureen and her husband, Bill, would take over their home in Washington, D.C. But there was one snag: Mom didn’t want to go.

“Mother said of retirement communities, ‘They eat dinner at 5:30. I haven’t even had my first cocktail at 5:30,’” Maureen recalls with an appreciative laugh.

So they decided to do something a bit radical for the time: turn the house into a two-family residence, with half of it retrofitted to meet the special needs of their aging parents.

Working with Ruxton architect Frank Lucas, the family built an addition with a large bedroom, wide hallways, and an accessible bathroom—even separate thermostats and a private entrance off the drive. The result was “a perfect house to accommodate two families,” says Torgerson. The addition allowed her husband’s parents to cancel their reservation at the retirement home and stay where they were, thus fulfilling the dream of nearly 90 percent of older Americans: to age in place.

“Frank really paid attention to details,” says Torgerson. She recalls that the architect studied things like “how the light falls in the winter, how to take maximum advantage of the views.”

Thirty years later, Maureen and her husband, now retired and approaching their 70s, know that they, too, won’t have to move when they can no longer go up and down the stairs. Like their parents, they can share the house—with a live-in caretaker, or with their son, an executive with an alternative energy company.

When it comes to dealing with older parents, Maureen says, “We were the forerunners, just ahead of the baby boom. Back then, we went through what a lot of our younger friends are going through now.”

By investing in a long-term solution to accommodate aging in place, the forward-thinking Torgersons, says Eric Anderson, “did it right.” Owner of Baltimore-based Accessible Housing Services, Anderson is involved in multiple facets of making homes more accessible. His home-renovation firm markets ramps, showers, and other retrofits to accommodate disabilities. He also consults with insurance companies trying to put a dollar value on the long-term needs of those who have suffered insurance-covered injuries that have left them disabled. Most of the time, such modifications are “reactive,” Anderson says. “Rarely will people do it unless they experience some kind of personal need.”

One of Anderson’s clients, Dean Millman, a Baltimore business owner, lost his leg in a motorcycle accident four years ago. While Millman, 56, was able to remain in the two-story house he’s shared with his wife for more than 20 years (“I can crutch it up the stairs, or cheek it up if I’m hurting,” he says), the place posed some physical challenges. The small lip and sliding glass door to the shower, for example, “was tricky to hop over” once he’d taken off his prosthetic leg, Millman says, “especially if it was wet.”

Anderson, in his consultant role, worked with the contractor to eliminate the shower threshold, place a drain in the middle of a slightly graded floor, and build handrails and benches inside and outside of the shower. While it reflects “universal design”—lingo that builders and architects use to describe accessible spaces—“it’s tweaked for Dean’s specific needs,” says Anderson. One of those needs, for the owner, is aesthetic. “It looks like a spa,” Millman says.

When it comes to accessibility, says John Brennan, director of housing policy for the Maryland Department of Disabilities, “there isn’t one standard that encompasses everyone,” the way the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards are awarded to buildings that meet certain environmental criteria. There are, however, terms like “universal design” and “visitability” that are used by the industry to describe different degrees of accessibility.

The term universal design, indicating “accessible to all,” loosely describes such elements as widened doorways for wheelchair access and ramps. While The Center for Universal Design (located at North Carolina State University) does have stages of certification—bronze, silver, and gold (bronze might mean banisters on both sides of the stairway; gold indicates space for a lift)—most people with disabilities need modifications tailored to their specific needs, says Brennan. A lesser standard more suitable for homes (as opposed to public building) is “visitability,” says Brennan, meaning things like a zero-step entrance, doors with a minimum 32-inch clearance, and one wheelchair-accessible bathroom on the first floor. That standard is a growing trend among builders and home developers, and is even the law for new residential construction in a handful of counties and municipalities.

Given the dramatic increase in those turning 65 in the next few decades, building and modifying homes to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs may well be a wise investment at all levels.

But is it a good financial investment to retrofit? When visitability is incorporated into the original construction, says Brennan, it shouldn’t cost much extra. “And studies show that it can increase the resale value of a home if it’s done correctly,” he says.

Eric Anderson is not so sure: It’s hard to determine the value of modified homes, he says, because current real-estate assessment tools don’t have categories for such details. “Appraisers just compare the houses to others in the neighborhood that don’t have those features,” he says. “Once these houses are bought and sold as such, we’ll be able to start putting value on them.”

Because there’s no clear answer yet on how resale is affected, Anderson has clients who want renovations to be reversible. This can be as easy as yanking out an aluminum ramp, or a bit more complicated. He recently built an elevator for a couple in Timonium, one of whom suffers from a degenerative disease that requires a wheelchair. The couple, Anderson says, “understands the prognosis and the disease, and the idea was, whatever I did, we could undo, so the house would go back to the way it was.”

Anderson helped George Rice, a quadriplegic, modify his house in Woodlawn. The bathroom is wide enough to turn a chair around in, and Rice can wheel right up to the sink without his knees bumping against a cabinet. There are no thresholds in the doorways and the door handles are easy to reach.

“If you’re in a chair, it’s extremely hard to find a house like this,” says Rice, who studies economic development and real estate at the University of Baltimore. For most of the disabled, he says, “it’s not an accessible world. You take what you can get.”

Issue date: July, 2013
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