Adaptable homes fit changing needs

David Swerdfeger doesn’t think your neighbours need to know everything. Let them go on thinking the house his company, The Mobility Group, has designed for you is simply an attractive addition to the neighbourhood.

They don’t need to know its secret: that it’s quietly planned for the changes you might need as you grow older in it. Designed for easy living at any stage of life, it can readily be transformed into an efficient living space for someone with a disability.

For the past eight years, the Kingston, Ontario based company has been designing 1,000 to 5,000 square-foot homes, managing building projects and shipping plans all over North America. (They’ll soon have a website where plans can be purchased.)

Built in changes
“There are things that can be done-and should be done-when the house is built, which cost nothing in the initial construction but can be extremely expensive if you’re doing a retrofit,” says Swerdfeger.

Until then, it’s a comfortable home for anyone, with little to suggest its suitability for aging or physically challenged inhabitants.

“We specialize in not using special things. We try to take standard ims out there in the market and make sure we select those that work well for seniors and for the disabled,” he explains. “It reduces cost, because as soon as the label ‘durable medical goods’ is applied, the price goes up. After all, a bent stick is called a cane, but the difference between a bent stick and a cane is about 500 per cent.”

Three-foot doors are only $6 more than standard doors, he points out, unless they’re labelled ‘specialty’ doors. Then they come with a $400 price tag.

Houses are designed with four-foot-wide hallways, three-foot-wide doors and no-sill doorways-a cinch for moving furniture-and a no-hassle route for wheelchairs or walkers.

Special needs
The innovative company also develops products that address a specific need-like the wheelchair wash pad, where the wheels of the chair can be cleaned so they don’t track dirt into the home.

They’ve also created a sunken fibreglass tub to allow people with limited leg motion easier access to a bath.

The designers find it a snap to work with large homes, but a lot of clients want the same features in a 1,000 to 1,200 square-foot house.

“They want to retire to a place that gives them the freedom of their own home with the maintenance of a condominium,” says Swerdfeger.

Single level homes
Most of the homes designed by The Mobility Group are built on a single level, but he notes that if land is expensive and a buyer opts for a two-storey construction, planning for accessibility is still possible.

 “We end up doing things like stacking the closets,” he says. “The upstairs closet is over the downstairs closet and there’s a false floor in the upstairs, so you can basically pop it out and drop in a conventional elevator.” Readying a home for an unplanned elevator would be a much more expensive and disruptive process.

The slab-on-grade construction of the single level homes means no basement (radiant heating, suitable for this type of construction, provides even, comfortable warmth that everyone enjoys).

No basement
“Our studies tell us that after 70, for example, not a lot of people head for the basement,” says Swerdfeger. “It becomes a big, expensive open space for storing things you probably should have gotten rid of – a huge storage space that holds the hot water tank and the furnace.”

Bathrooms and kitchens tend to be slightly larger than in comparable homes, contributing to the home’s ‘visit-ability’ – which Swerdfeger describes as the ease with which a physically challenged friend can visit.

It means, he says, “your friend can come in the door, sit down and have a meal with you, visit in your living room and go to the bathroom. It’s a matter of design and yet what a big difference-because if you’re over 65, one in three of your friends has a disability.”
Features to look for in an adaptable house:

  • Electrical plugs higher and light switches lower, for easy access.
  • Wider four-foot hallways, three-foot-wide doors, level doorsills.
  • Levers, not doorknobs.
  • U-shaped handles on cupboards, easily opened with one finger.
  • Central overhead light in each room.
  • Kitchen and bathroom large enough for wheelchair to navigate.
  • Grab bars in tub and shower areas.
  • Roll-in shower for wheelchair access.
  • Electronic faucets that turn on automatically (good for people with arthritis or a balance problem).
  • Low-pile carpeting or non-slip ceramic tile.
  • Low-maintenance exterior (brick, vinyl or aluminum).
  • No steps to outside or to garage.