Bill Thomas: Making MAGIC for Supportive Housing

Anyone familiar with supportive housing for long-term care knows the name Bill Thomas. Dr. Bill Thomas, to be exact, has spent the past quarter-century working to humanize the nursing home experience.

His first initiative was the Eden Alternative, introducing plants and animals into the nursing home environment to both enliven and calm the residents. Next, and just becoming nationally recognized, are his Green Houses, small structures housing 12 to 20 residents each, and each with its own kitchen and living room, surrounded by private bedrooms and bordered by outdoor patios. This breaks up the scale of the large nursing home and offers much more personalized care.

Now Dr. Thomas has stepped up to the next order of business: creating small, safe, affordable houses dedicated specifically to supporting seniors in need. With his unfailing sense of wordplay he calls it the MAGIC project, standing for multi-ability, multi-generational inclusive communities. The “communities” will actually be small groupings of private houses ranging from as little as 325 square feet in size, each with a fully accessible kitchen, sleeping area and bathroom.

This small house, which can vary considerably in basic design, he is calling the Minka, a Japanese term for “the people’s house.”

The Minka itself is created using technology just coming to the fore in design and construction. One such technology is modular construction going far beyond the “trailer home” concept most associated with it. The individual pieces of the home can be printed out using 3D technology, with the entire manufacturing process located close to home to minimize transportation difficulties and costs—a new concept called distributive manufacturing. These then will be assembled in intentional communities, focusing particularly on seniors and aimed giving them a neighborhood feeling, with this new concept being dubbed the pocket neighborhood.

Alternatively a Minka could be built as an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) in the home’s back yard. Cost? A not inexpensive $60,000, but a one-time cost—far less expensive than $90,000 a year nursing homes or $40,000 a year assistive living facilities.

And if this level of innovation isn’t enough, Thomas proposes to use these structures as testing grounds for research, with family consent, on so-called cognitive prostheses, using computer chips and algorithms to assist cognitively impaired seniors and Alzheimer’s victims with normal brain functioning.

Not surprisingly, all of this is in its very earliest stages. In fact, the first users of MAGIC will be students at the University of Southern Indiana, which is seeking improved housing options for these young people.

But Dr. Thomas sees the ADU concept for senior housing, aided by projects like MAGIC, coming into its own over the next decade.