Aging in Place Remodeling- Basic Strategy

by Louis on September 10, 2010

I met with a new client today. The project came through a new relationship with a successful contractor I have known for some years. Russ Glickman is adding an accessible remodeling focus, landed a great client and asked me along to put in my two cents.

I really like working this way. It is a larger group including Russ, an architect who seems like a great guy, the client couple and me. Lots of good ideas and feelings in a collaborative atmosphere. Everyone brings something. No one is expected to know everything.

The client is an adult woman who is paraplegic and her husband. They live in a typical DC area brick center hall colonial. She grew up in the house, they bought it from her dad. Great neighborhood, beautiful mature trees, larger lots and a great location in Silver Spring, Md.

The program is pretty typical, too. Upgrade the master bedroom to include a beautiful accessible bathroom, elevator, screen some of the large outdoor areas they use for entertaining, get the whole house to work for Kathy, bring the laundry up from the basement if possible. The architect, John Kowalski is competent, pleasant, interested, open and not arrogant. What a pleasure!        (photo not their house, but similar)

I jotted some notes about basic Aging in Place remodeling strategy in an ‘aha’ moment a few weeks ago. Today’s meeting gives me an opportunity to use them. Though this client and project is not the ‘Dream Universal Design Project’ – a client who does not have any known conditions that require Universal Design solutions – they are just smart and progressive enough to want it (like their smart and progressive designer, builder, advocate, consultant- haha). But this client voiced all the basics I have in my notes. 1. They know the house will go on the market someday whether they move or die first. 2. They care about how their home looks and feels for themselves and guests. 3. They recognize the need for accessibility. Ergo- Universal Design!

The basic strategy list:

  1. Make my home and life (more) beautiful – MY  aesthetics
  2. Stay within my Budget
  3. Solve problems and contribute/improve my life routine
  4. Keep my home from becoming a white elephant

Beautiful. Because beauty is in the eye of the beholder it is not so easy to get it right. Most people know what they like when they see it, but describing it to someone else is different. Pulling this out from a client is a skill and a talent not easily taught, not everyone can learn. Transferring the ideas to the design for communication with the client to assure them and then to the builders is an additional skill set.

The budget is always important. It is also really hard to get it right from the beginning. Remember, in the beginning,  the project has not been verbally articulated,  let alone designed, engineered, detailed and decorated. Project ideas grow and change throughout the design process. Guarding the budget successfully through the time and excitement of design -what is in the original budget, what is additional and how much each costs is an important and difficult task. It requires a soft touch, diligence and experience.

Identifying problems is not as easy as you might think. Many people are not good at articulating needs. They may be focused on a solution they saw on TV or read about, but if it does not clearly follow from the problem they have it will not resolve the issue. Not solving the problem is a sure failure.

i. People with progressive conditions do not often really know how it will be in the long run. Should the design team be helping them see down the path? ii. Some folks are in denial about their conditions or even the ubiquitous condition- aging, iii. Sometimes the client and/or the contractor/design team are not comfortable talking about the personal details of the client’s condition, d. There are no health related conditions to solve.

This may be the dream, but it is also a seriously moving target. Preparing physical space for unknown health condition for this client and future residents. That is Universal Design. It is a great idea. It is not easy.

In some cases, resolving  health related conditions may require expensive elements that compromise the resources available to achieve the desired beauty. How is the balance maintained?

Keep the house marketable. Everyone,  those of us who plan to stay in our current homes for five years or so, or hope to be carried out, want to make sure the value is retained…to apply to another house, other expenses or to pass on. No one wants to work hard, and see the results disappear. Keeping it attractive is a requirement, even as styles and tastes change.

Hey, I said ‘basic’. I started calling them critical.  That seemed a little exaggerated, but I am not so sure. Though they may seem so obvious they are almost not worth mentioning, in fact, each of these four must be kept in mind for the project to be successful. That may not be so easy.

I will try to keep this blog updated about this project as it progresses. I see great potential and excitment!

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter Durkson September 10, 2010 at 8:21 pm

I really enjoy your blog. It’s informative and compassionate.
Thank you,


Louis September 12, 2010 at 6:16 pm

Peter, Thanks you and you are welcome. Lets home we advocates have some impact making a more compassionate world.


Rhonda Chen, CID September 16, 2010 at 3:26 am

Great information. Great AiP2.0 report. Keep up the great forward thinking work and continue to get the word out.


Ken Kipping, NCARB September 17, 2010 at 5:18 pm

Excellent article Louis. My wife Judy and I are beginning to focus all of our efforts on aging in place. Both of us have had experiences with seeing loved ones removed from their homes and going to a nursing home when it could have been avoided. Seniors deserve much more than that.


Tom Reavey September 19, 2010 at 8:18 pm

This is great, I love being along for the ride as this job unfolds. All of your comments and ideas mirror and match what we experience in our design-build / agining-in-place contracting business. I look forward to hearing the rest of the story as it unfolds. Also much appreciate your Aging In Place 2.0 report, it is what got me to your website. I have shared the report with many in ours and related endeavors.


Hoechstetter Interiors February 10, 2011 at 12:17 am

Nice article, Louis. You’ve hit on a couple of things I rarely see spoken about, namely the challenges inherent in figuring out what a client wants and needs, as well as their aesthetic preferences, and translating it all into something workable – and the design team’s role in helping the client envision what is coming.

One thing that really surprises me is how seldom anyone involved in universal design and aging in place ever thinks to include an interior designer on the team. Most interior designers really have no idea what they are doing with respect to aging in place, etc., but really good ones certainly know how to figure out a client’s aesthetics at minimum and translate them – and how to work with a team of architect, contractor, and other consultants to create a comprehensive whole.

What interior designers in general do, however, perhaps more than any other party to the design team, is translate all of the needs and desires to a workable daily interface that also meets all of the client’s aesthetic requirements, both interfacing with the structure itself, and in selecting the most appropriate finishes and furnishings, and all other interior elements. A good interior designer adds far more value to this whole undertaking than most people have a clue about.

I’ve expanded further on this and other elements of your post in one of my own on my blog at

Wendy Hoechstetter, CAPS


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: