Designing for the Not-So-Old
There are a lot of rules about how to set up homes for the elderly or disabled. Just don't talk to Jackie Buckley about them.
One of the first questions that come to mind when you look at the plans for the Concord Cottage, a former TOH house project, is why in the world would a 73-year-old couple want a two-story house? Isn't this the age when most people look forward to giving up stairs and living on one convenient level?
Don't bother asking Jackie Buckley those questions. When she and her husband, Len, started talking about the cottage, they weren't thinking about grab bars and call bells, they were thinking about comfortable, well-planned design. Why is the laundry room upstairs? Because that's where the laundry is, of course. Why does the main floor have only a powder room, with the bathing facilities on the second floor? Because you bathe or shower in the bathroom near your bedroom, which is also upstairs.
Jackie had no interest in living in a sterile, "elder-friendly" home, or in a retirement-style condo. "I couldn't get excited about senior housing," she says. "But a place custom made for me! Now that I could get excited about."
The new cottage not only excites the Buckleys, it also accommodates their needs quite nicely, with a large dining room where they can entertain friends for lunch, built-in bookshelves with a desk area for paying bills, and a work desk for a computer with shelves on either side. And televisions close at hand for one of Jackie's passions. "My mother is a news junkie," says Janet Bernard. "She watches news and financial shows 24 hours a day. There will be a TV in the kitchen, in the living room, and near the bed."
Still, the Buckleys are in their seventies, and reality does have to prevail. As energetic and fit as Jackie is now, she's well aware that that won't always be the case. Architect Holly Cratsley is aware of that, too, and knew she needed a design that would continue to meet her clients' needs over the coming years.
"What's wonderful about Janet and Jackie is that they're both so flexible," says Cratsley. "They're interested in the process, and in the end they always say they want to do what's right." That gave Cratsley the freedom to design a beautiful home worth getting excited about, while incorporating some universal design principles that make life easier for the Buckleys into the future. Most importantly, the two-story cottage was designed as a "convertible" — it can be adapted to one-story living if and when that's what the Buckleys want.
The ground floor of the house now consists of a kitchen, dining room, powder room, and, in the extension in back, a living room. With a quick change of furniture, and maybe the addition of an interior wall, the living room can become a bedroom and the dining room can become the living room. Presto! An instant one-bedroom apartment on the ground floor.
But what about that half bath, with the only full bathroom up a flight of stairs? In a stroke of genius, the ample powder room has been designed to convert to a shower room if necessary. Rough plumbing for a shower was designed into the plan and has been installed behind one wall, ready for the addition of a handheld shower and faucet at any time. The tiled floor of the room slopes imperceptibly toward one corner, where a drain is already installed. With relatively little expense, the little powder room could become a full shower room, in which someone perched atop the toilet (or even in a wheelchair) can bathe.
"It was Russ Morash's brilliant idea," marvels Janet. "We didn't want to tile in a whole shower now, but we wanted to be able to have one later. So the whole room is waterproof—the base of the sink is porcelain—and to convert to a shower room we just put in a handheld shower where the pipes are behind the wall. We'd have to tile the walls then—right now as a powder room it's wallpapered. But to tile the walls and put in the shower, it's a day's work converting from a powder room to a full shower room."
Cratsley made sure to accommodate other important principles in her plan, as well. The house is well lit, but not so well lit that reflection and glare offend 73-year-old eyes. "Lighting on stairs is especially important," she says. "We used aisle lights low on the stairs, and you can leave them on all night as a night light. On the second floor, the stairs are positioned far from the bed, so if someone gets up and gets disoriented, it's harder to fall down."
Throughout the cottage, a combination of design principles and product choices add to the Buckleys' comfort. Light switches are illuminated rockers, not toggles. Carpeting is low pile, thresholds are low, and trip points are eliminated. Everyday routines that might precipitate a fall have been thought through so the plan itself helps keep the occupants safe.
"It's important, for example, to have space on both sides of the main entry where you can put things while you get out your keys," says Cratsley. "We put benches there under the pergola. Also, inside the main entry, you need a place to put things down right away, like a bench or a table, and we've allowed room for that."
All in all, Jackie sounds delighted with the way the cottage has been designed around her needs. "You know, I would never want to leave Concord," she says. "We spent the first twenty years of our married life in the military, and we traveled so much that now I want to stay put. These days I think Cape Cod is a big trip! Concord is perfect, and this cottage is even more perfect—if you can improve on perfection."