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Restart: September and Houston

by Louis on September 7, 2017

September always brings mixed feelings. Sad that our summer is over, we have the mix of excitement and dread for a return to higher activity levels. This year we are particularly upset for Hurricane Harvey’s victims.* Even those of us at a great distance and with no local relatives or dear friends are overwhelmed at the scale of destruction. It is so clear there will be no returning to normal. Not soon. Probably not ever. That means a new reality, a new normal must emerge. That pheonix, just a little like the return to more attention at work, holds a little excitement about the opportunities Gulf Coast communities have for a fresh start. How can better home design be incorporated in the rebuilding to make even stronger, more resilient communities out of the disaster?

Image result for hurricane harvey

The news is full of stories like this editoral by Paul Krugman in the New York Times about Houston’s lack of zoning as a contributing factor and how disaster rebuilding policy historically means throwing good money after bad.  What can we do to make things better? How can we get houses right when we rebuild?

The difficulties and costs of aging well in existing homes is starting to be recognized. But policies to encourage home updates (in order to reap the benefits of better home design) are not common. This is the opportunity. Rebuilding can include carrots for those who do better. Yes, we need to gather and manage expert panels to describe better…but we should be doing that anyway. The carrots can be lower interest, fast track permitting, cheaper flood insurance if things are better or any number of possible incentives.

Building and development respond to incentives and regulations. Policies incorporate societal goals into the built environment. We need to expand our scope of ‘better’ to include aging in homes in community. Home updates is a ripe place for targeted policies. HR 1780, The Senior Accessible Housing Act and Design for Life Montgomery are early steps. Any large-scale rebuilding efforts are a great place to get the ball rolling.

What are the benefits? Let’s think in terms that are common (dare I say trendy or popular?) these days; sustainability and resilience. Sustainability is ‘using resources without using them up’. Better prepared homes are sustainability in spades. Your home does not become outdated as you age and your mobility, abilities and health changes. This reduces risk for those on a fixed income much like better HVAC (heating/ventilation/air conditioning) and insulation shield homeowners from growing energy costs. Your house value really works for you over the long haul if you can avoid being forced into expensive senior housing. If housing costs are known and fixed before health changes occur your home investment is more sustainable.

Scarce caregiver resources are also used better. Less assistance is needed in a prepared home. Specific caregiver resources like backs that can be injured and energy that can be drained are preserved as well. This works for both family and paid caregivers.

Resilience, in the disaster context is ultimately about preparedness. And this holds true for a “prepared” home in terms of aging – – it is, by definition, resilient.  Think about returning home from the hospital or rehab;  If you can get in and get a shower safely you can return much more quickly. This saves healthcare dollars and recovery is better and speedier in the comfort and familiarity of your own prepared home. Ready for whatever may come its way.

These factors and more have rippling impact on family and community resources. Families get to decide how to enjoy their time together if daily activities are easier to manage. Community resources go farther when members of all ages can balance their caregiving and other responsibilities. That is sustainable use of resources, too.

What can we do? We have to figure that out. I have written one colleague at FEMA with whom I discussed the same issue regarding North Carolina last year. The Universal Design community tried to influence rebuilding after Katrina to little effect. But we need to be creative, together, because we should rebuild Houston, and all our communities better, stronger and more resilient!  Please use the comment section below to explore your thoughts on this topic.

*Who knows what more sadness, destruction (and opportunity?) Hurricane Irma will bring to this discussion by early next week?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Todd Brickhouse September 7, 2017 at 8:49 pm

Hi Louis,
While reading through your article, you mentioned how
associate companies are realizing the cost for Aging in Place. It’s still less expensive to retrofit then to institutionalize. Working with two insurance companies for the last two years, they’ve learned the cost for Stairlifts or an Accessible Bathroom, but also have found the renovation where the person can remain home healthier for there member emotionally and physically.
Best Regards, Todd@BDGrp

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