Do you remember a time when you were a kid and your body was silent? Unless you fell off your bicycle or were attacked by a swarm of bees, your body really didn’t have much of anything to say to you. I remember times when it seemed that I didn’t even have a body at all. My body was just a silent partner who always did what I asked.
As we age, our bodies become more vocal and more in need of consideration. How does this play into a forever house?
If I could impart only a single word to act as a mantra for designing a forever house, it would be “change”. Yes, your body will change. Your eyesight, your mobility, your strength, your hearing, your dexterity and a whole host of other things will change. While it is highly important to anticipate and plan for these types of bodily changes, the most important change is in how you see and use your house. I’m suggesting that it’s necessary to engage your house as a creative partner in change.
Thus, when I say plan for change, I’m talking more about adopting a mindset rather than consulting a checklist of aging-in-place considerations. Your forever house will fail if you conceive it as a static entity or a highly specialized machine to be rigidly optimized. A forever house needs to be whole-bodied, limber and flexible enough to meet you where you live.
How you inhabit a house should change naturally and gracefully over time rather than be prescribed, fossilized. Let’s shift our focus on change beyond that of our own aging for a moment. As humans, earth-living creatures that we are, the changes of season, day/night rhythm, and weather fluctuations all affect our bodies. A well-designed house puts you at ease with these forms of change – even encourages an appreciation of them.
An example of living with seasonal change from centuries ago is evident in the plans of English manor houses. Among a vast array of rooms, some are identified with seasonal titles, such as “winter porch” or “summer kitchen”. I’ve always imagined an annual internal migration occurring among these rooms to capture the best qualities of thermal comfort and views from each.
But what’s applicable in this day and age? What makes sense for anticipating the needs of reduced physical mobility? What happens if we find greater comfort in a single room than a rambling estate? The goal of any house is to consistently provide shelter and comfort to inhabitants – and provide options.
While different from the seasonal migration inside a great English manor, I would suggest that you anticipate how specific spaces may play host to a variety of uses over time. Let’s say, for example, that I’ve always had a dream to live in a tree house. I design a glassy second floor perch enveloped in a canopy of trees for my bedroom. On the first floor, perhaps I situate a study or guestroom in a sunny east corner. Why assume that I’ll always use the same bedroom for the rest of my life – particularly if it comes with investing in an elevator as a form of mobility insurance? Here is where creative envisioning comes into play.
The abundant morning sun of your ground floor study may in fact become a far more desirable companion than an upper-story tree canopy as you age. Your upstairs bedroom could become a desirably distant lodging place for visiting family members — or an in-house caregiver, or an income-generating student renter.
The goal of thoughtful design is to present highly attractive options to meet changing needs. While other essays here will tackle the details of universal design and aging in place, I would urge forever house aspirants to maintain a flexible vision. A house may be constructed of rigid materials, but you’ll want to breathe the capability for change into how the spaces are conceived.