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When kids leave home or retirement begins, homeowners often downsize or build their dream home as part of the next chapter of their lives. Yet have we thought enough about whether the living space is ready for this next chapter? Will the next home support safety, comfort and independence for the long run?

“No one thinks, ‘I’m going to need a walker or a wheelchair in 10 years,’ but then when a parent or a friend needs one and they can’t visit you anymore, you realize you have to start thinking about this. You want a home that adapts to the owner’s changing needs,” says Gord Porter, executive director of the B.C.-based SAFERhome Standards Society.

Tarren McKay, 60, and her husband, Brad McCannell, 65, couldn’t agree more. When they built their home in Garden Bay, B.C., five years ago, they already knew they needed a wheelchair friendly home since Brad has been a user since his 20s. What they also learned, after deciding to get their home built and certified according to the SAFERhome Standard Society’s building standards, was how much more their new home could do to meet both of their needs over time.

“When you build or buy a house you tend to think in terms of, ‘What do I need now?’ These building standards allow you to think about your future. I know that I will be able to age in this home easily,” says McKay.

First and foremost, however, is the desire for an attractive, comfortable living space. “What we didn’t want was a home that looks like someone in a chair lives there,” emphasizes McKay. They didn’t want anything to appear like it belonged in a hospital, nor did they want the home to bear the tell-tale signs of wheelchair traffic. “You know how highway guardrails look, gauged by cars that hit or scrape by?” she adds. “That’s what the walls and corners of our previous house looked like.”

Thinking ahead can ensure that potential obstacles for anyone with mobility issues can be avoided. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Dana Moos

Their home today boasts a large entry and wide hallways and doorways. Its open-design concept not only permits easy wheelchair maneuverability, but also 16-foot-high ceilings and large windows with a breathtaking view of the lake. Their large bathroom features a walk-in, roll-in shower with a built-in, tiled bench. In the kitchen, the wood cabinet doors under the sink and cook top can open and slide in, so that McCannell can roll in and comfortably cook or wash up. “When people walk into our home, they say it’s beautiful. They won’t think that it’s wheelchair-accessible,” explains McKay.

Similarly, people won’t think the house is an older couple. The shower bench is a perfect illustration. “My friends come for a visit and think it’s fantastic. There is no stigma attached because it’s part of the design,” says McKay.

Other practical, forward-thinking features in the home include 45-degree-angle corners (“which look really neat,” she notes), reinforced bathroom walls for the easy installation of grab bars, and an electric outlet behind the toilet for electronic assistive equipment, if needed.

Universal design helps homeowners age in place

SAFERhome’s set of 15 standards (for building, plumbing and electrical) is based on the principles of universal design, which essentially ensures that a home is safe and accessible for all ages and abilities. While you don’t need to register with SAFERhome to build a universal-design home, registration entails inspections in order to obtain certification. The extra features of universal design and SAFERhome certification should add no more than $1,000 to homeowners’ building costs.

“House inspectors anywhere in Canada can sign up and take the course. Any builder can build according to universal design. What we need is more people out there saying, ‘Hey, this is a great idea,’ and putting pressure on the builders,” says Porter. To that end, the SAFERhome Standards Society is working with municipalities in B.C. to help them implement housing policies that incorporate universal design (for example, by making it a requirement for a percentage of new houses or apartment units).

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) is doing the same nationally. Since launching its Aging in Place program in 2014, it has connected with more than 100 municipalities across Canada interested in universal design housing. “Universal design is really the solution for the future, not just for aging Canadians, but for all Canadians,” says Jamie Shipley, a knowledge mobilization consultant at CMHC.

Shipley also expects that the baby-boomer population will finally tip the balance in favour of universal design for all new housing. “Builders will tell you they need a market, that people need to ask for this, and we can see that happening with baby boomers,” says Shipley. “Looking ahead five years to 10 years, we envision that universal design will be part of the fabric of all house designs.”

That sounds right to McKay, who does not hesitate to recommend universal design to anyone who’s thinking about building their next home. “Just do it,” she urges. “This is the first house we’ve built and there is nothing about it we would change.”

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