Declaration of Independence

Embracing Aging-in-Place Home Design can keep you living comfortably at home for years to come.

With a little foresight, a lot of common sense, and only a modest budget bump, a growing number of homeowners are dramatically improving the odds that they’ll be able to stay in their homes well into their golden years. That’s the promise of Aging in Place (AP) and Universal Home Design (UHD), an approach to remodeling that not only makes your home more convenient and comfortable today but also helps you avoid unnecessary headaches and expensive modifications in the future.

While the primary incentive behind UHD for many homeowners is to extend the number of years they can continue to live independently (aka “aging in place”), it’s also an ideal solution to the challenge of caring for aging parents or physically disabled family members of any age.

“Everybody should consider Universal Home Design when remodeling,” says Dan Bawden, owner of Legal Eagle Contractors, Co., a Southwest Houston-based design/build remodeling company. “Ideally, a home should be friendly to everyone, from children to senior citizens. Even though the long-term thinking is to make things more convenient and safer in the future, it also helps make things more convenient and safer now.”

The concept of Universal and Aging in Place Design has been picking up steam over the last few years as baby boomers slowly come to grips with the realization that those gray hairs and wrinkles are here to stay.

Emphasis on the word ‘slowly.’ “One of the biggest issues is that everybody’s in denial,” says Bawden. “Many baby boomers still don’t believe that they’re ever going to get old. But as more remodelers take CAPS (Certified Aging-in-Place) training (see below), and as the AARP begins to heavily promote awareness of the CAPS program to its members, I expect to see Universal Home Design become a standard component of the remodeling process.”

“We have been gently encouraging our remodeling clients to look at Aging in Place Design,” says Howard Sussman, Project Manager for Legal Eagle Contractors, Co.  “But some people just laugh about it and say something like, ‘I don’t plan on getting old.’ They say it in a joking manner but they mean it. And then they move on to the next issue.

“Whenever possible, however, we try to make people aware of easy and inexpensive modifications they can make to extend their lifetime in that home,” adds Sussman, who, like Nelson, has successfully completed CAPS training. “It could be as simple as choosing lever handles for interior doors instead of knobs, which can be difficult to turn for people who develop arthritis.”

Many people are concerned, notes Bawden about creating a sterile, hospital-like atmosphere when a home needs to be made accessible and livable for someone with physical limitations. “When people think about accessibility,” she says, “more often than not they envision hospital grab bars and electric beds. But there’s no reason why a home can’t be stylish and beautiful as well as functional.”

A Quick Checklist

Your home may fit your current lifestyle perfectly. You’re relatively young, your eyesight is good and you have no problem retrieving items from the top shelf. In 10, 25 or 40 years, however, the same home may pose challenges that you never anticipated. The safer and more comfortable your home is now for people of all ages and stages in life, the fewer obstacles it will present down the road.

Here are some of the most common alterations — many of which require no structural changes —  recommended by remodelers trained in the art and science of UHD and AP design. (For a more detailed listing of features, refer to the sources listed at the end of this article.)

Exterior and Entrances

  • At least one step-free entrance is at ground level.
  • Walkways, at least 36 inches wide, are level with little or no slope.
  • Integrate a wooden or concrete ramp into a deck or landscaping design.
  • Keyless door locks are operated via remote control or keypad.
  • Lever-style door handles instead of round doorknobs.
  • Ample lighting both inside and outside the main entrance.
  • A roof, canopy or awning protects the main entrance from inclement weather.
  • The home’s exterior and trim are maintenance-free.

General Floor Plan

  • The main floor is at ground level.
  • The kitchen, laundry area, and at least one bathroom and potential bedroom are on the main floor.|
  • An open floor plan with fewer walls between rooms and no long, narrow hallways.


  • Plenty of clear counter space next to appliances and cupboards.
  • Open, uncluttered floor space for easy maneuverability.
  • Anti-scald faucet has a single level instead of two knobs or two handles.
  • Counters and other work surfaces are at different heights.
  • Counters have rounded corners instead of sharp edges.
  • Raised platform (with storage space) under dishwasher avoids excessive bending.
  • Appliance controls are easy to read and easy to reach.
  • Pull-out shelves and lazy susans provide easy access to food and storage items.
  • The sink, stove and other work areas are well lit.
  • Place microwave in base cabinet instead of above range for safety in dealing with piping hot food.

Laundry Area

  • Laundry area is on main floor, close to bedrooms and bathroom.
  • Front-loading washer and dryer are on raised platforms or stacked.
  • Appliance controls are easy to read and easy to reach.
  • Work area is well lit.
  • Folding table is suitably wide and easily accessible.
  • Storage areas are at various heights.


  • At least 36” of open space on each side of bed allows for easy maneuvering.
  • Light switches are reachable from the bedside and the door.
  • Extra electrical outlets (for medical equipment, etc.) are near the bed.

Closets and Storage

  • Use double bars, one low and one high, so items are reachable from a seated or standing position.
  • Adjustable-height, open shelving so there are no drawers to deal with.
  • Doors (not bi-fold) and door handles are easy to operate.
  • Area is well lit with an easily accessible light switch.   Doorways and Hallways
  • All doors are 36” wide to allow wheelchairs to maneuver throughout the home.
  • Hallways are 36” to 42” wide.
  • Lever-style door handles instead of round doorknobs.
  • Doors are sliding-style instead of the standard swing-style whenever possible.


  • Sturdy handrails are on both sides of all stairways, both inside and outside.
  • Stair treads are 10” to 11” deep, wide enough for the entire foot.
  • The stair rise is no more than 7” from one step to the next.
  • No carpeting

General Points to Consider

  • Lighting. As people age, they require more and better lighting in key locations. For example, add lighting underneath kitchen cabinets to ensure that the counters below are well lit. Throughout the home, a good choice is recessed lighting because there is no visible fixture to clash with existing aesthetics and the halogen bulbs they use provide a much truer, whiter light.
  • Electrical switches. Contrast the color of these switches to make them more visible. For example, use dark-color switches on white walls. Instead of toggle switches, use rocker switches, which are oversized.
  • Colors. To minimize vision problems, use contrasting colors throughout the home. For example, ensure that the color of the carpet or flooring near a stair is different from the color of the stair itself so that an elderly person can easily tell where the stair begins and ends.
  • Cabinets. Consider leaving doors off cabinets in the kitchen and elsewhere. This is very helpful for visually impaired people and for family members who have difficulty handling things.
  • Laying the groundwork. Remodeling a bathroom? It makes a lot of sense to reinforce the shower wall while you’ve got the chance, even if you’re years away from needing grab bars. Adding 1/2”-thick plywood to the wall before applying the drywall and tile will save you the hassle and expense of ripping up the wall years from now when the time comes for extra support. Similarly, installing plumbing on the main floor today will make it much easier to relocate the laundry area when climbing stairs becomes an intimidating obstacle.

Education through Experience

Until the concepts of AP and UHD become more mainstream through aggressive promotion and marketing efforts, chances are that homeowners and remodelers alike will be introduced to it only when a crisis arises.

Here is a typical older parent scenario: For the last few years your 88-year-old mother has been having difficulty functioning at home. She’s been refusing to go elsewhere, but her home has some very significant mobility issues, such as very steep stairs, that have been causing her problems. There were also considerable financial obstacles. After two years of negotiating, she finally agrees to move into an assisted living apartment three months ago. Had those issues been addressed earlier, she could have stayed in her home longer and possibly avoided the stress and trauma of having to leave.

Randy Stow’s consciousness was raised 15 years ago when an existing client was faced with a personal tragedy. “One of our first significant remodeling projects involving accessible design was a couple whose daughter was confined to a wheelchair after a bad car accident,” recalls Stow, owner of Stow’s Home Remodeling in Northwest Houston.  “We installed an elevator, wider doors and a shower she could roll her wheelchair into. We also put lever handles on all the doors, shower fixtures and kitchen fixtures.  A lot of this kind of work boils down to just good common sense design and taking an individual’s needs into account.”   Randy Stow has since completed numerous projects that demanded a high awareness of UHD and AP elements. “Just a few years ago,” he says, “we did a remodeling project for a client whose eyesight was failing, which brought to light a whole new set of parameters. For example, the quality and quantity of lighting, accessibility to light switches, and the colors of the surfaces we used were all important because everything needed to be designed to enhance his visibility. It was a good learning experience for us.”

Today, these experienced contractors approach each remodeling project with an increased sensitivity to how clients can best function in their home, both now and in the distant future. “We try to keep in mind that the home will be used by a variety of people with a variety of needs that may constantly be evolving,” Bawden says. “For example, a client may have perfectly good eyesight today but down the road it might begin to deteriorate. We try to take those kinds of things into account across the board.”

It’s precisely that kind of long-range planning that’s been driving the integration of Universal Home Design slowly but surely into the mainstream. “Some accessibility-related design features have already become part of our lifestyle,” points out Howard Sussman. “For example, a lot of people opt for a first- floor owner’s suite now because it’s in style in new construction, but it also speaks to accessibility because there are no stairways to get up and down.”

The gradual aging of the general population and hence, the growing importance of AP and UHD, is certainly not lost on product manufacturers. “Old lever-style faucet handles are back in style,” says Sussman. “That’s not an accident. It’s good, long-term thinking on the part of manufacturers who know they have to design products to stay ahead of the curve. They need to have products out there before the average consumer realizes they need it.”

Bawden has six words of advice for anyone who’s about to launch a remodeling project: Do it right the first time. “Making the hallways three feet wide is relatively inexpensive if it’s included in the overall scope of a remodeling project,” she says. “If it’s not done now and the need for wider hallways arises down the road, retrofitting your home will be hugely expensive. Plus, there’s absolutely no better place than your home to invest your money, especially in today’s dollars. And the benefit is two-fold. Not only will the value of your home rise, you will also reap the reward of upgrading your lifestyle, both now and in the future.”

Resources for Information about Universal Home Design*

  • American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) (800-424-3410) ( ) This national advocacy organization offers printed materials and web resources on home accessibility and Universal Home Design.
  • Livability (651-636-6869) ( ) This website asks questions about your home and personal circumstances, then delivers a customized report with suggestions and resources for making your home more livable.
  • Center for Universal Design (800-647-6777) ( ) This national resource center offers publications and resources on Universal Home Design.   • Home Modification Action Project (213-740-1364) ( ) This national resource center offers publications and resources on remodeling for home accessibility.
  • National Association of Home Builders CAPS program, University of Housing, Tara Occhipinti, ( )
  • NAHB Research Center   Charlotte Wade ( )

Local Information for design training in Aging in Place and Universal Home Design principles, can be obtained by calling the Greater Houston Builders Association, Lyn Foster 281-970-8970 ext. 111  ( ).  She administers the CAPS certification classes in Houston, Texas.

The Caps Program: Spreading the Gospel of Universal Home Design

When Dan Bawden, owner of Legal Eagle Contractors in Houston, read “Fixing to Stay,” a study released by the AARP in 2000, two numbers jumped out at him. First, he read that 83 percent of Americans older than 45 were determined to stay in their homes as long as possible. However, 28 percent also believed that the challenge of finding a reliable contractor to help them achieve that goal could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle.

Intrigued, Bawden called AARP and was directed to senior housing specialist Leon Harper (who has since left the organization). Bawden’s suggestion that the NAHB (National Association of Home Builders) team up with AARP to connect senior homeowners with quality contractors was initially met with skepticism. It turns out that a recently completed AARP study had revealed that the organization’s members had developed a healthy distrust of contractors. This wariness was due in large part to watching one TV news show after another ensnare unethical contractors in well-publicized sting operations.

Bawden responded with a passionate verbal protest. “Hey,” he told Harper, “we have 6,700 responsible, ‘good guy’ contractors around the country who belong to remodelers councils and builder associations. These are not the crooks you see on the 6:00 news. These are responsible businesspeople that take care of their clients, have proper licensing and carry insurance.  Doesn’t it make sense to hook up the people who want these services so badly with good, reliable contractors who want to perform those services?”

Harper cautiously agreed but made it clear that if any alliance were to be formed, there would have to be numerous checks and balances in place to screen and train contractors. After a series of discussions, the two men agreed upon a code of ethics and a format for contractor training: three-day classes with a closed-book exam at the end of each day. The resulting program was christened CAPS (Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists). Its mission is to make Universal Home Design (making a home friendly and functional for people in every stage of life) a standard component in the remodeling and new construction process.

The NAHB Remodelers Council owns the CAPS program and administers it along with the NAHB University of Housing. Federal funding helps the NAHB Research Center update and print the class manuals. The AARP’s role is to market the program to its members. Interested in taking the course? The NAHB will connect you to your local builders association or other appropriate organization.

The first official CAPS classes were held at the annual Seniors Housing Symposium in Orlando, Florida, in May of 2002. Bawden is now one of 21 instructors nationwide who have been certified to teach the course. “We’re being very careful about who we allow to get training,” he says, “so we can be sure that the quality of the education for participants remains as high as possible.”

To date, roughly 250 people have successfully completed the course and another 300 are already signed up. Although 90 percent of attendees are contractors, a number of other professions have also been represented at the seminars, including architects, designers and occupational therapists.

“I just had a realtor fly in from Denver to take my class in Houston,” says Bawden. “Realtors want to know what effect the CAPS program is going to have on property values. Their question is, ‘Is it going to add to the value of the house or is it going to diminish the value and therefore I should encourage people not to do it? He went away very satisfied that well-planned modifications were a good investment for resale.”

The popularity of the course has certainly exceeded expectations. “To give you some perspective on how popular it is,” says Bawden, “the CGR (Certified Graduate Remodeler) program, which is the highest accreditation you can earn in remodeling expertise, just passed its 1,000th graduate. That program has been around for about 10 years and we may be at 500 graduates after just one year.”

Educating remodeling professionals, of course, is only half the battle. Bawden is looking for every opportunity to increase awareness in the public at large. “We’re reaching out to the public through the media, the Internet, church groups and civic organizations like the Lions and Kiwanis clubs. I just gave a free presentation at a home show in Houston about Universal Home Design and Aging-in-Place modifications.  Designers in the ASID chapters across the country are very interested as well.”

The key to the program’s popularity among contractors, says Bawden, is demographics. “As more and more of our population gets older – there will be 89 million American turning 60 between now and 2030 according to the AARP- the demand for this kind of work and people who know how to do it are going to grow geometrically. Anyone who has any perspective on what’s coming down the road with regard to ideas and demands in residential construction is latching on to Universal Home Design and is looking to take the CAPS course as quickly as they can.”

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