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Opt Out to a Better Home

by Louis on April 12, 2011

Symphony Park at Strathmore is a new townhome community going up near my home.  An article in Bethesda Magazine brought it to my attention. Symphony Park shares a campus with Strathmore, a wonderful arts and music center. Residents even get priority ticket sales!! It is located adjacent to a metro (subway) station. Just up the main road from the Symphony Park site is a huge shopping district, Rockville Pike, that is being changed into a more urban/walkable/livable community over the next few years. Looks like a great idea.

BUT- you knew I would have a but, didn’t you?This place, these homes, scream out for Universal Design (doesn’t every place?) but that is not really in the cards. Here is why. These are townhomes, four story units. There is an option for an elevator. If people purchase the elevator option AND assuming they can get a level entry – a question since the renderings show steps -these can be homes for a lifetime. Without the level entry they are just a tease.*

These are pricey homes – which defines the market. These are not entry or even move up family homes, they are empty nester/boomer/cutting back from the yard residences. With that demographic in the sights these homes are wonderful Aging in Place opportunities.

BUT knowing what we know about ourselves, active adults in good shape and enjoying a great life…will most of US select the elevator option? Will we prepare for life changes we cannot quite imagine in our zest for more fun right now! NO Way! That is a missed Universal Design opportunity. Once the home is built and the life changing health incident occurs it will be a VERY big deal to get an elevator installed…and your master suite is two stairclimbs from the ground.

What can be done? I just finished Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s great book, Nudge, about choice architecture and nudging people to make better decisions. Thaler and Sunstein suggest that making the ‘opt’ OUT instead of IN might be a huge difference. Make the elevator homes the default. People can save if they do not select the elevator BUT my reading of this behavioral economics book is that more people will end up with the elevator if it is the default.

A compromise Opt Out, is to make the shaft the second tier default. Easily removable floors can be inserted to make great closets until the shaft is needed. There are just a few floor plan changes that occur in the current default, one, a powder room on the entry level can become a third possible choice if you pass on the first and second defaults. I think the elevator is a much better default because it makes the home more sustainable, a better value for the homeowner.

I am alerted to the importance of this opportunity from Nudge. The authors explain that, when viewed from a choice architecture perspective, buyers are going to be influenced by the way information, choices, are presented anyway. Their approach, called Libertarian Paternalism, suggests we should be aware of the impact of the choice architecture and help people to better decisions by being as careful with that design as these new homebuyers expect us to be with the layout of the house. I think it is a good idea.

*Another luxury townhome, The Brownstones at Park Potomac, community near here included a porch lift in the garage of every home that selected the elevator option. I am not sure this is not also true at Symphony Park.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Marcie Lovett April 13, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Louis, I always joke that nobody consulted me when they make what I think are bad design decisions. Wouldn’t the designers benefit from a nudge from you? Maybe they’ll view your Web site and take the hint!


Bree May 12, 2011 at 3:03 pm

I can’t wait to read that book! I really love the idea of “opting out” rather than “opting in.” Such a simple idea, why didn’t I think of it?

And how can we get developers/builders/architects/designers/etc. to use this strategy when new housing is planned? An incentive of some kind?

Great post, Louis.


Carolyn Thompson May 14, 2011 at 8:40 am


I stumbled upon your site when researching this community for one of my real estate clients. Very insightful about this community.

Only as I’ve gotten older have I considered home in which someone can age in place.

I purchased my rancher on a half acre wooded lot so that I can enjoy the foliage, but my gardens are more manageable than the massive gardens I had when I was younger.

I love the idea of opting out instead of opting in. I will certainly refer back to this site.

Thank you for your posts.


Wally Dutcher May 26, 2011 at 9:36 pm


I liked the “but” because upon yur first mention of the project I naturally went to look at the project and the floorplans and was scartching my head thinking; “why the hell is he mentioning this piece of crap project?” Screams? Hell it does more than that. They should install tornado warning sirens. Given their target market and being pricey, it’s obvious that it might be the Baby Boomers. Let this scream go out to the design community that we need to educate the consumers. That being sait, it assumes that the design community knows about UD and how to integrate the principles into a prescriptive set of features as well as what products offer designs that will work. Here’s my “but”, which you know all to well–all designers really don’t quite do that. That being said, it now becomes an issue of how can we go about the teaching.


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