Some small homes are known as accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. They include modular attachments to the family home known as personal assisting living dwellings, which are universally designed for aging in place, and granny pods, which are freestanding small shelters built in the family back yard and are designed to be homelike while featuring supportive technology. Others include apartment structures housing microapartments, 300 to 400 square feet, with ingeniously designed furniture to maximize living space. Another possibility is a tiny house, 300-800 square feet, freestanding or on wheels, and sometimes grouped with others in small pocket neighborhoods. All are candidates for solving an important and fast-growing problem: the need for affordable, safe and attractive housing for seniors wanting to age in place. See (below) an introductory essay provided by the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care, Housing & Healthcare blog: Small Homes for Aging: The Next Frontier
Practical small home solutions
By Richard L. Peck
When I attended the recent National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care conference in Chicago, I was fascinated to see these experienced seniors housing investors and developers showing an intense interest in a new market for them: the so-called “middle market.” They’re used to developing housing projects serving seniors who are relatively wealthy (often from home sales) or who are low-income enough to qualify for Medicaid-financed long-term care. Now, spearheaded by NIC’s founder and long-time leader Robert G. Kramer, they’re recognizing that most seniors fall in the middle but need senior housing options too.
But these financiers also feel perplexed. They look for returns on their investments and projects, but wonder about these and question how to develop and market this sort of housing. What model will work? How can they inspire community planners’ interest in an approach that sometimes conflicts with existing zoning? And, for that matter, how can they get aging seniors and their families interested? Also, the bottom line: how can they make money on these more modestly priced structures?
As luck would have it, as I was walking along a corridor between sessions, I found myself suddenly buttonholed by a developer who eagerly told me his company is working on the answers to these questions and more. Brian Deamer, along with his partners Peter Beukema and physical therapist George Pasteur, working under the company name Andersen Price Lifestyles, are collaborating closely with planning officials in Fairfax County (Virginia) and Montgomery County (Maryland) to create a middle market solution that works for everyone.
“It’s basically a bed-and-breakfast model,” Deamer explains. “Each building will have six or seven 750 square-foot apartments, each including a living room and a bath-and-a-half, with attractive common areas for socializing, gardens, front porches and guest apartments for relatives’ overnight stays. Services of all kinds will be unbundled, that is, brought in ala carte, provided and paid for as needed. The new structures would be located in or close to seniors’ home neighborhoods and so maintain convenient access to food stores and other shopping.”
A simple-sounding neighborhood-based structure, but one with profound implications on many levels:
1) The structure blends in much more easily with a residential community than the typical senior care and housing facility that often incites “not in my back yard” reactions.
2) It’s a rental model, meaning that, rather than spending small fortunes on entry fees and high-end rentals, seniors are able to keep the proceeds of their home sales and spend, on average, $2,000-3,000 a month for rent (moderate in those two counties), along with additional funds for services delivered only as needed.
3) These structures will allow seniors to stay in or very close to their home communities, preserving contact with relatives, neighbors, friends and stores.
But there are still more potential advantages. Deamer, Beukema and Dr. Pasteur propose to build these projects using many of the latest concepts in home construction:
1) Hidden but readily available “universal design” features that make living spaces readily adaptable to aging in place, including bathroom grab bar anchors and height-adjusted kitchen counters which come into play only when seniors need them.
2) So-called green design elements—including, if possible, environmentally sensitive features such as solar power, efficient HVAC control and water conservation.
3) Supportive technology using electronic sensors for unobtrusive motion surveillance, voice-activation and lighting control.
4) Modular construction, assembling structural parts and utility packages in factories and shipping the finished structures to building sites rather than building them on-site—potentially a huge money-saver that helps preserve capital returns for developers and investors. Peter Beukema notes he has a half-dozen modular designs available that he says will scale up quickly and be readily adaptable.
Putting it all together, it’s an attractive and affordable alternative to upscale senior communities and facilities that cost so much. Ideally, says Deamer, seniors will consider leaving their homes earlier than they anticipated, in the process avoiding the growing isolation that comes with aging in place. “Our partner, Dr. Pasteur, has said that, from his physical therapy practice experience, he knows that isolation is a serious medical problem in itself,” says Deamer. “This model reduces the chances of that happening.”
Andersen Price Lifestyles is still two or three years away from realizing the complete vision. Deamer says the challenge right now is to educate community officials and spread the word to neighboring communities who might support the concept. “After watching my dad’s development work, I know it’s better to work with community planners now rather than asking them to adapt to something we’ve already done. And, as he always said, the more people involved in understanding the situation, the faster things get done.”
For starters, the partners are offering a test concept of mixed use housing, using existing acre and half-acre commercial properties allowing senior apartments to be located above various retail establishments and medical service providers. “Community planners have shown considerable interest in this initial approach, which in many cases won’t require zoning changes,” says Beukema. “This will establish the idea of allowing seniors the dignity of choice while continuing to live in their home communities.”
Small home experimentation like this is in fact happening around the country. For anyone who feels daunted by the questions and obstacles posed by small homes for aging (discussed in “What will it take?,”, see below), it can now be confidently stated that practical and experienced developers like Andersen Price Lifestyles are taking a serious shot at the solutions.
What will it take?
At first blush the small homes for aging idea makes so much sense it’s a wonder that it’s not more commonplace already. The truth is, there are several obstacles in the way, and removing them will require profound change in several areas:
Zoning: The largest practical obstacle of all at the moment, with the vast majority of municipalities still favoring that post-World War 2 staple of community development, the single-family home. Long held forward as “the American dream,” the single-family home is the bedrock of suburbia and, more and more of late, exurbia (the large rural and semi-rural tracts between cities). And many of the occupants of those structures want nothing that will interfere with their community mores, parking arrangements or taxes.
Which points to a related obstacle, called NIMBY, not in my back yard. Years ago I wrote in my book The Big Surprise that it wasn’t unusual for community members to turn out at municipal planning meetings to oppose development of nursing homes and assisted living facilities in their neighborhoods. The thought of changing the nature of a single-family neighborhood, with the supposed impacts on traffic and parking, was intolerable. The same possibly unfriendly reception is true of the small home, be it accessory dwelling unit (ACU), pocket neighborhood or backyard granny pod.
Choice: A big problem is simply availability of information about small home choices. You must find the solution that works best for you in contemplating caring for a loved one at or near the home, but the choices are several. ACUs come in various flavors: attached, detached, upstairs, basement—not to mention sizes varying from, roughly, 300 to 1,500 square feet. Granny pods—temporary backyard structures that can be installed and removed at will and incorporate sophisticated tracking and other supportive technologies—are another option. Somewhat larger practical assisted living (PAL) homes constructed in backyards or nearby are yet another. Understanding these requires significant research and, if possible, input from an informed consultant, if you can find one.
Finance: Two issues here: cost and the availability of capital.
As noted in the previous installment of this blog (“Sticker Shock,” below), the cost of an ADU was found to be irreducible below $180,000 in the “ADU capitol” of the U.S., Portland, Oregon. Granted, the urban northwest is already a relatively high-cost area, but one of the major drivers of that cost is a problem afflicting much of the country: the cost of construction labor. With the loss of much of their skilled labor force during the Great Recession, contractors are scrambling to find, develop and hire the plumbers, electricians and carpenters they need to complete housing developments of all kinds. The inevitable cost of this is a sharp rise in the cost of construction labor. One major Portland contractor I spoke with at a recent ADU conference told me, “This is a growing problem, and I see no end in sight.” Another general problem with contractors is that many just don’t see how they can make sufficient money in the small home market.
Even where costs are not daunting there can still be the problem of raising sufficient money from conventional sources, such as banks and other mortgage lenders. Many financiers are still unfamiliar with the challenge of meeting the needs of the so-called “middle market,” that large and growing group of middle income families who can’t afford sustained facility care running tens of thousands a year, and yet make too much money to qualify for Medicaid assistance. Robert G. Kramer, a founder and strategic advisor for the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care (or NIC, the national organization of seniors housing financiers), says members have been “spoiled” by the relative ease of marketing big-ticket facilities to upscale seniors, but wonder where the return on equity will come from middle market models. He says figuring this out will be seniors housing financiers’ major challenge for the next decade before the full impact of middle income seniors slams into the market.
Technology: As a caring environment, the small house won’t work without supportive technology. These are devices and systems available today that do much of the work a caring staff would do in a formal facility, such as a nursing home or assisted living structure. Residents’ daily activity is monitored closely enough so that any significant slowing down or disruption of that activity will be quickly identified and dealt with. In the small house motion sensors and alarm systems play that role, connecting directly with the main home and its occupants, whether at home or away. Another, not really new, automated device offers medication management, alerting the senior or caregiver when certain drugs must be taken, and tracking serious deviations in drug-taking behavior. More recently voice-activated technology, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Echo Dot, gives the senior communication and environmental control options never before available. (See “New Technology for Small Home Living”, below). Not too far down the road will undoubtedly emerge useful and pleasantly acceptable robots to help seniors with home maintenance and perhaps even provide entertaining company. Also telehealth, with seniors conducting virtual visits online with healthcare providers, is another growing option.
The point for now, though, is that all this emerging technology remains on the cusp of general acceptance, and even existing supportive technologies such as motion sensing can be controversial, perceived by some as an invasion of privacy. The senior care environment has a ways to go to catch up with the smart home revolution currently underway.
Home care knowledge: A major issue right now, and one that continues to evolve, is family knowledge of home care techniques needed to keep senior safe without burning caregivers out. The “right time” to move a frail senior from a normal, day-to-day home environment to facility care has long been contentious. Seniors, for their part, don’t want to leave the home, vowing never to do so even when it’s clearly necessary.
Meanwhile caregivers find themselves becoming ever more deeply involved in senior care—feeding, bathing, dressing, even toileting—as the need grows, often at the cost of their jobs and working hours. The question is, how much can you and others living at home be expected to take on, practically speaking, in the family home? When will transfer to a formal caregiving facility become unavoidable? These questions have highly individualized answers and must be explored early and often.
In view of all this, the path to the small home as a practical alternative may well be long and challenging. But these issues will be worked through over time, based on the accumulated experience of families and homeowners addressing them individually starting now.
ADUs: How affordable?
Affordability: the whole point of this blog from the start has been that accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and other small structures are a far more affordable type of supportive senior housing than assisted living (around $40-50,000 a year) and independent living facilties (monthlies running from $3-5,000 a month, on top of an entry fee not uncommonly of a quarter-million dollars or more).
But there is no getting around the fact that building an ADU from scratch is not cheap. Recently Portland, Oregon-based ADU guru Kol Peterson reviewed the costs carried by developers in that ADU hotbed of activity and found that, among other things, the absolute minimum, irreducible cost of building a detached ADU was $80,000. More typically, though, detached ADU construction averaged more than $180,000,
Average costs weren’t much different for other ADU types, e.g., $185,000 for a basement ADU, $154,000 for an attached ADU (attached to the family home), $142,000 for a garage conversion, and $217,000 for new construction above a garage.
The cost “fly-in-the-ointment” is the expensive fixed costs of development and construction, including labor and material, excavating and pouring a foundation, and concrete formwork, as well as costs involved in permitting, design costs, and utility connection costs.
Many of these costs in the Portland area are offset by so-called “sweat equity,” with owners contributing their own efforts to the design and build. Going even further in individual initiative, these owners are often required to seek financing from sources other than the typical mortgage and building loans available to single-family home developers.
With or without contributing your “sweat equity,” though, it is important to think through the initial costs you will incur with ADU development. The good news is that the expense is upfront and limited, rather than lasting multiple months and years, as is the case with other supportive senior housing. Over the course of time, the savings stand to be substantial.
Still, the small home approach to the “missing middle” talked of so much these days by senior housing financiers, just waking up to the dichotomy between the high-end projects they’re familiar with and the typical alternative of Medicaid-supported facilities, remains frustrating. The concept is new, and many builders and planners just aren’t comfortable with it yet.
Case in point: a recent article on a “pocket neighborhood” of small structures offered as a downsizing alternative to single-family homes in suburban Northern Virginia https://www.builderonline.com/building/will-cottage-neighborhoods-be-the-next-housing-trend_c?utm_source=newsletter&utm_content=Third-Party+Content&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=BP_080119& cites prices of $750,000-800,000 for the 1,500 square feet—hardly within the realm of affordability. While these costs reflect the high-cost environment of single-family homes in this suburb, still, it is clear that traditional senior housing developers have a long way to go toward comprehending the “missing middle.”
Innovation is needed, and there might be some hope, for example, in Bill Thomas’s Minka house concept using offsite prefabrication that can bring construction costs down considerably (see, “Bill Thomas’s Small Home Approach to Dementia,” below).
But, for now, do your homework and stay patient in venturing into this field.
The Unfolding Apartment
The sheer ingenuity of design that allows small spaces to become supportive, comfortable places to live has been noted before in this blog (see, “Multi-use Furniture Enabling Small Spaces”). Personifying the “designer of the future” who will produce such spaces is New York architect Michael Chen, principal of Michael K. Chen Architecture (MKCA). The innovative “pieces/parts” he’s designed for a dynamically accommodating microapartment have set the standard for design of small spaces of 400 square feet or less.
Chen started a few years ago with the 420 square foot “unfolding apartment.” Its flexible element is a large cabinet containing a Murphy bed, nightstand, closet and home office, each of which can be pulled out to transform a space from living room to office to bedroom, as needed. A flip-down panel offers multiple uses as a console table, a dry bar or a desk. The design, in Chen’s words, allows for an “exchange” of living situations during the day.
“Exchange” is a word he uses frequently—it is the underlying concept of all his work in designing microapartments.
Exchange is provided differently by a 390 square foot apartment in the city’s Gramercy Park neighborhood in which the transforming element is a sliding storage wall that can slide from one end of the apartment to the other. In this case of what he calls the 5:1 apartment the space layout itself is “exchanged,” with living areas changing in size to accommodate sleeping and dressing in the morning, doing office work during the day and watching TV at night. Power and cabling for all this is cleverly built in.
The moveable wall has built-in clothing storage, a queen-sized fold-down bed, an entertainment area, appurtenances for a home office, a dry bar and a library. A six-foot table can be pulled out for dinner parties (not a common event in microapartments!), but can also serve as a desk with a built-in computer and printer.
The supporting infrastructure for this is a mechanical marvel Chen has designed featuring a sliding track on top, a steel strip embedded in the floor for support and casters to allow movement. The wall’s movement is motorized.
This is where the Chen concepts can become somewhat challenging as adaptations for senior living. “Some strength is still required to move things,” he says, “and items such as beds are still standardized, with no customization available as yet to meet special needs.”
It is in senior design, Chen says, that further innovation is needed. “We’re considering developing the new hardware and other elements ourselves for more adaptability. Architecture in general shouldn’t expect to use standardized items in this area. It is time to move on.”
Applying such ingenuity to the design of senior housing appears to be only a matter of time.
A number of simultaneous developments are converging to make the case for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) as a serious alternative for senior housing in the near future.
A study published recently by the widely respected journal Health Affairs disclosed that more than half of seniors in the “middle income” range will be unable to afford private pay senior housing by the year 2030. The annual cost of assisted living plus medical expenses, set at around $62,000 currently, would be beyond the reach of any but the most well-off seniors.
In fact, as I’ve noted before in this blog, annual costs of supportive housing, including independent-oriented developments, already go well beyond the resources of average middle-income Americans who don’t have high-priced homes to sell. The urgency of this was endorsed recently by the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care (NIC), just starting to educate its real estate and financial investment members on middle-income housing needs.
Indeed, the days of “big box” senior housing are just about over, said senior care trailblazer Dr. Bill Thomas at the recent BUILD conference sponsored by Senior Housing News https://seniorhousingnews.com/2019/05/09/bill-thomas-big-box-senior-living-no-longer-the-only-game-in-town/ . He highlighted the Minka ADU experiment he launched as an answer to this a few months ago in Pennsylvania (see, Bill Thomas’s Small House Approach to Dementia, below).
Pertaining specifically ADU legislation, the Seattle, Washington city council opened the door to more permissive ADU-related coding to allow easier development on existing properties that have been heretofore restricted to single family homes https://seattle.curbed.com/2019/5/13/18619101/adu-dadu-backyard-cottage-law. And the online newsletter Accessory Dwellings (see Resources) reported on a flurry of activity creating new financing tools to expedite ADU construction. https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?tab=wm#inbox/FMfcgxwCggCNpFwbBQJHBPvNRpfTPCXx Financial markets adopting these will be a major factor in jumpstarting the ADU trend.
Finally, in one of the quirkier new developments, a product called U-Build would enable would-be ADU creators to assemble a modular timber structure out of a flat-pack kit of parts, with no construction experience needed. The creator, called Studio Bark, claims “it reduces the scale and complexity of conventional offsite techniques, enabling the building shell to be assembled by people with limited skills and experience using only simple hand tools.” See https://www.dezeen.com/2019/05/10/ubuild-studio-bark-modular-architecture/
The build-your-own ADU—what a moneysaving concept.
The ABC’s of ADUs
As announced in our previous item on AARP’s involvement in the ADU movement, AARP has just issued its complete, easy-to-read and well-illustrated guide to all aspects of ADU development.
Titled “The ABC’s of ADUs,” it is available for download or phoned requests for hard copies at the site www.aarp.org/ADUs. In it you’ll find the sheer variety of ADU models possible, the design features that might best accommodate your needs—in our case, the “universal design” supportive approach for seniors—and how to address the always tricky issues of building codes and permits.
The Guide’s approach to the latter, by the way, makes it sound clearer and even easier than you might think.
The Guide features real-life examples of each of the models possible and how owners brought them off. It shows the cities and locations that are ADU-friendly and possible courses of action where they are not.
The vigorous endorsement by an organization like AARP indicates, for ADUs, an idea whose time has come. Good luck with “The ABC’s of ADUs”!
AARP Pushes the ADU Solution
When an organization representing 38 million older Americans takes a stand, attention must be paid. For nearly two decades the organization, formerly known as the American Association of Retired People, has supported accessory dwelling units (ADUs) as an affordable housing solution for older adults. It started with a model ADU code some 19 years ago, but recent years and months have seen a heightened activism by AARP in this direction.
Heading a relatively new division called AARP’s Livable Communities, Danielle Arigone has advanced a multi-pronged approach to creating such communities for the elderly, including urban planning, transportation and housing. Much of this has involved reaching out to communities throughout the country to encourage age-friendly development. As of now, some 360 communities have been officially designated by AARP as age-friendly https://www.aarp.org/livable-communities/network-age-friendly-communities/info-2014/an-introduction.html.
Last year Livable Communities conducted a survey finding that 75% of older adults wanted to age in their communities, but that in many cases their housing was either oversized for their needs and abilities or too expensive to access, e.g., independent and assisted living institutions. “Communities have come at this in various ways,” she says, “but the most popular has been ADUs.”
Interest has been expressed in all small house models discussed in this blog: attached, detached, backyard granny pods, microapartments, tiny houses on either foundations or wheels. “We’re focusing on getting all the information we can into these people’s hands,” Arigone says.
AARP has developed, for example, a written ADU guide for Louisville, Kentucky and has worked with mayors throughout the Chicago region to conduct ADU workshops.
Last year the organization co-sponsored an exhibit at the National Building Museum called Making Room, which showed various approaches to meeting 21st century housing needs for a changing America: more people living alone or with roommates, extended families, aging in place and, particularly relevant to ADUs, empty- nesters—seniors wishing to move from their long-time family homes to places that, while still safe and comfortable, are more affordable and easier to maintain.
AARP Livable Communities’ specific exhibit for Making Room was an empty-nester-oriented 250 square foot microapartment, featuring many of the ingenious arrangements in furniture design, layout and storage that have been discussed elsewhere in this blog (see below, “Multi-use furniture enabling small spaces”), featuring such “universal” (aging-friendly) design items as motor-operated beds and adjustable countertops.
In early May, Arigone says, AARP Livable Communities will publish a general guide to ADUs for the nation at-large, still another major step toward validation of this alternative. Look for this blog’s report on the guide in a couple weeks.
And keep your eyes open for any AARP initiatives on ADUs in your communities.
Small Homes for Aging: The Next Frontier
Introductory essay published by the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care
By Richard L. Peck
The sheer cost of long-term care! Few shocks in modern life can equal that of the average middle-class family seeking safe accommodations for a loved one in need and discovering the price tag of safe housing. Costs run from the mid-30-thousands a year for assisted living and significant home care to $90,000 a year and above for skilled nursing.
Then comes the shock of learning that virtually none of this is covered by government or, in particular, Medicare. And the government coverage that does apply, Medicaid, only comes in when the family member becomes legally impoverished.
This is the “big surprise” I alluded to in publishing a small book on that theme several years ago (“The Big Surprise,” XLibris Publishing, 2012). Families are experiencing it every day in growing numbers—a growth soon to burgeon, as the oldest Baby Boomers move into their 70s.
It’s questionable how, or whether, society will respond to this challenge, but one thing is becoming increasingly clear: a form of safe and affordable housing is evolving that may meet much of this need.
Small homes are just starting to penetrate the national consciousness. These include, but are not limited to, tiny houses—around 500 square feet, often on wheels—that have gained some trendy attention in news media and entertainment venues (a character in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie lives in one). But small homes are also defined by the term accessory dwelling units (ADUs).
ADUs come in several flavors—additional dwelling space in a family home, small detached homes of varying heights, so-called “granny pods” (small, independent units installed in back yards), and microapartments of 300 square feet or less. They are attached or detached, urban or suburban, freestanding or offered as small communities, such as pocket neighborhoods or tiny villages.
Usually (though not always) these come at relatively affordable prices, a one-time expense of roughly $45-120,000. So their affordability is already a selling point for the senior housing field.
But beyond this are the design advances and new technologies that have evolved only recently to make small home viable for seniors seeking safe, affordable housing.
Some design innovations include adjustable-height counters, beds and tables that fold into walls when not needed, ingenious arrangements of furniture and storage space allowing for maximum mobility and avoidance of claustrophobia, and pleasant finishes worthy of any home.
Technologically there is the microchip, and all the supportive equipment that this enables—motion sensors; personal emergency response; voice-enabled “servants” providing schedule reminders, entertainment and home security; and medication management. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) point to the imminent arrival of helpful robots performing needed chores and errands.
Coming as well is telemedicine, allowing physician offices to connect directly with patients in their dwellings, providing surveillance and advice, as well as needed examinations.
All of these technologies are working together to create a new alternative for senior housing.
Needless to say, none of this is commonplace as yet—this development can be fairly characterized as “bleeding edge.” Supportive technologies have a way to go to secure seniors’ trust and adoption, not to mention basic understanding (although a surge of voice-enabled devices, such as Alexa and her sisters, seems to be in full swing). Intense focus on the elderly is not quite there yet in Silicon Valley, and AI has a long way to go to become domestically useful.
An even bigger current obstacle is the slow advance of municipal housing codes to make way for the development of small homes of various types. Most codes are very conservatively single family home-oriented. Northwestern cities such as Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, British Columbia are currently leading the way in opening the door to smaller spaces, and recently Minneapolis, Minnesota became the first city in America to end single-family zoning throughout the city. Meanwhile Virginia became a “granny pod” pioneer only a few years ago in allowing development of backyard MedCottages.
Last year long-term care innovator Dr. Bill Thomas laid the groundwork for his so-called Minka small home communities in the state of Indiana and has initiated construction.
In general, though, municipalities and states have been leery of small home developments for fear of uncontrolled spread and severe diminishment of property values, and this appears to be a challenge slow to resolve.
Or maybe not.
In any event, all elements are present for a true revolution in senior housing—an affordability salvation for many families, a step toward safe independent living for elderly no longer able to live in the family home, and a rich opportunity for imaginative real estate developers who see what’s coming in only a few years.
To that end I have established the blog smallhomesforaging.com to track these developments, educate decision-makers, and perhaps even entertain.
Richard L. Peck is former Editor-in-Chief of the magazines Long-Term Living (formerly Nursing Homes Magazine) and Healthcare Design, of which he is founding editor. He also began the DESIGN series of annuals (now known as Environments for Aging) showcasing advanced design for long-term care facilities. Previously he spent nearly 10 years editing Geriatrics, a clinical magazine aimed at primary care physicians.
Bill Thomas’s Small House Approach to Dementia
William Thomas, MD is no stranger to innovation in senior housing and care. In the early 1990s he encouraged adoption of the Eden Alternative to cold, impersonal nursing homes, using plants and animals to soften the environment and make it more life-friendly. Then came the Green Houses in the early 2000s, dividing large nursing homes into 12-bedroom houses, with central kitchen and common areas and staffs called shahbazim (from a Persian concept of noble helper), trained to provide the most personalized care in a homelike setting.
Now comes Bill Thomas’s most personalized approach of all: high-tech small houses for seniors suffering from that most dreaded of conditions, severe dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Continuing with his gift for exotic-sounding names, Thomas calls it his Minka project, derived from the Japanese term for “people’s house.” To the rest of us it is more recognizably small houses grouped in imaginative ways and built using the latest innovations in construction technology.
Most Minka homes are 640 square foot structures offering smart home supportive technologies and clustered in pocket neighborhoods to ensure closeness. The houses are constructed of 3D-designed, computer-fabricated parts designed for modular construction allowing completion of one house in two days.
The social innovation of this comes in the types of people intended to occupy these small homes. This past November, in the small town of Clearwater, Pennsylvania, Thomas and the local Alzheimer’s Association of America (AAA) chapter initiated construction of the Village of Hope, projected to be 12 pocket neighborhoods of five Minka homes each on a 23-acre lot, surrounding an elementary school renovated as a community center.
Says Thomas, “Kathy Gillespie, AAA local director, wanted to create genuine communities for people who otherwise tend to get isolated because of their care needs. We all know of couples who get separated when one of them becomes institutionalized for care. Why do that? Why not make them and their caregivers part of a community that helps and is given help in return?”
This supportive approach has been dubbed MAGIC, the Multi-Ability Multi-Generational Inclusive Community. The Village of Hope homes will be occupied by three groups: people with dementia and a caregiver, adults with progressive developmental disabilities who need close, continuing attention, and grandparents and great-grandparents who have been thrust in the role of once again raising children. “The result is a multi-generational neighborhood of people who can support each other,” says Thomas.
As groundbreaking as this concept is for supportive housing, so are the construction methods used to build it. Working with the Danish firm AJGA Architects, Thomas is continuing to evolve the 3D-designed, computerized pre-fabrication approach, involving design software for building information modeling (BIM) guiding a computer producing precision parts (computer numeric control, or CNC). Working with these new construction techniques has been a learning experience, Thomas says. “We started expensively,” he notes, “with a 320 square foot house costing $125,000. But our second house was 640 square feet for $94,000 and the third 640 square feet for $85,000. It is relatively easy to upgrade the computerized manufacturing of parts by simply adjusting the software.”
It is important to recognize Minka not as a construction company, but as a manufacturing company, Thomas says—a company that uses precision manufacturing. “We use robots working very hard to make pieces that are standard within 1,000th of an inch, 150 times the precision of a standard 2x4 piece of lumber. We use no standard lumber and no nails, but rather a complex Japanese wood joinery technique assembling parts cut from wood and foam very quickly and precisely. Our basic building block is a roof box, 50 of them for one house, with the pieces transportable flat on a tractor trailer. These are then assembled on-site by a custom crane we’ve devised over the course of two days.”
Yet another Minka project is underway in Victoria, Texas, spearheaded by the Green Gate Fund, a team of geriatrics-related care professionals and business, construction and financial leaders under the guidance of Thomas. Called Kallimos, after a futuristic senior lifestyle Thomas described in a pair of 1990s sci-fi novels, it is a comprehensive attempt at senior co-living, providing seniors all the technological and community supports needed to age successfully at home.
“This will involve 100 small houses again grouped in pocket neighborhoods, with all the Eden Alternative amenities and using Green House operational principles. It is designed to be appealing to insurance payers such as Medicare Advantage, who are agnostic about architectural approach, as long as it works and saves money,” Thomas says.
For Thomas himself, Kallimos is the culmination of all the senior care innovations he has promoted for the past 30 years. “I have waited a long time for this moment to arrive!”
The View from the ADU Point Person
If there is a point person for the ADU movement, it would have to be Kol Peterson. Peterson has been teaching and consulting prospective ADU owners, developers and realtors in Portland, Oregon—ADUs’ Ground Zero—for the past several years. He recently authored a comprehensive book on the subject, Backdoor Revolution: the Definitive Guide to ADU Development, and is now spearheading the first Accessory Dwelling Academy for some 300 interested participants this coming June (AccessoryDwellings.org).
I wanted to get a snapshot of where he thinks the movement is heading as of early 2019. In an interview this March he gave me his observations on:
Most active areas in the country: “There is really a lot going on in cities like Denver, Austin and Atlanta. But the real hotbed of development continues to be Oregon, Washington and California; this is where coding changes and regulatory encouragement have made greatest strides. In California alone, ADU permits rose from about 80 in 2016, to 2000 in 2017 to 5000 last year, much of this being driven, of course, by California’s high housing prices.
“Another interesting development is Minneapolis abolishing single-family zoning in the city. We have a similar movement now in Oregon, where people are pushing for a statewide removal of single-family codes, which date back to the 1940s and ‘50s.”
First-time home buyers: “They are becoming increasingly savvy about the ADU potential of the properties they’re buying. They’re asking about the possibilities of garages and basements being developed for ADU conversions. Realtors tell me this is often the first question they ask. Along with this lenders, at least in the northwest, are showing strong signs of waking up to this market.”
The senior housing market: “This is potentially very strong. AARP has become seriously involved; its Public Policy Institute is publishing new literature directly addressing ADU coding and regulation, which it has called the principal obstacle to ADU development. They are building on model legislation that was developed with the American Planning Association back in 2000. I would say that senior housing so far is about 20% of the ADU market.”
For more information, go to AccessoryDwellings.org.
Tiny homes getting trendy, smarter too
News in recent days has disclosed significant developments for the small homes field.
The online newsletter Architecture Daily ran its annual survey of some 130 million users in terms of new ideas and concepts that had greatest popularity throughout 2018, based on social media investigations. Number 1: tiny houses. This included innovative solutions for developing living spaces of under 40 square meters for dense urban centers—an underlying driver for the idea of microapartments for seniors.
The tiny smart home—a crucial evolution in the growth of small homes for seniors—debuted at the recent International Builders Show in Las Vegas. Created by smart home automation company Control4, the 250 square foot structure on wheels features Alexa-controlled lighting and shading, remote temperature control, on-demand audio and visual presentations, and security. Commands are also issued via engraved wall keypads, handheld remotes, touch screens and mobile devices.
Several new statistics regarding the growing need for affordable seniors’ housing emerged from a recently published study by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS). Most U.S. households (65 million) are headed by someone 50 or older, and those headed by someone 80 or older are expected to double by 2037. Yet nearly half of the 80-and-over households today are occupied by people needing accessibility and mobility support—handrails, barrier-free thresholds, wide hallways and suitable door and faucet controls, all still relatively uncommon.
Small home idea spreads: 5 iterations
Small homes are, well, small, but they do come in various iterations. Recently the website builderonline.com published brief but well-illustrated reports on five recently developed structures. Not surprisingly they vary in purpose and cost, and all have been guided by our patchwork municipal regulations, some of which are more ADU (accessory dwelling unit)-friendly than others.
First, in ADU-supportive Portland, Oregon, a 16x32-foot backyard ADU was constructed to allow older loved ones to age in place. The structure features a bedroom, full bathroom and multi-purpose living room, all designed to accommodate wheelchair-access and universally designed handles and knobs for arthritic ease of use.
In Vancouver, British Columbia, where ADU structures are known as laneway housing, a 935 square-foot cottage was constructed allowing for extended family entertaining and sleepovers. A modern kitchen and two bedrooms are included.
Iceland-inspired architecture underlies a set of Los Angeles structures that can be used in a variety of ways—guest house, home office, bonus room, studio or Airbnb rental. Interestingly, they are pre-fab, modular constructions using panels made of patented materials and, technically anyway, heralding a strong possibility for future ADU construction.
Outside the ADU “hotbeds” of Portland and Vancouver, Minneapolis has been leading the way in loosening up housing codes to further experimentation with small structures—in this case, permitting a two-story ADU, with the dwelling unit situated on top of a one-car garage. It is designed to fit in architecturally with the associated family home.
Though ADUs are often presented (particularly in this blog) as relatively low-cost housing alternatives for people on limited incomes, that doesn’t mean they can’t go high-end if so desired. This Minneapolis ADU has been custom-designed to a fare-thee-well, making absolute maximum use of all available space, at a price point of $250,000.
Rumbles of change
It is still early days for the small homes for aging concept, but it’s not too early to start thinking about it—especially with those rumbles of change we’re hearing more and more. Like an earthquake signalling its arrival with a few tremors and a muffled roar, so too does the idea of small homes as a new alternative for seniors and their families seeking safe, affordable housing. When the single family home can serve no more.
For example, the city of Minneapolis has attacked one of the major obstacles by being the first city in America to abolish single family home restrictive zoning throughout the city. The idea is to open up housing alternatives to young families, seniors and minorities priced out of the market for affordable homes meeting their needs.
This still has legal challenges to surmount, but small homes pioneers can take heart at this opening foray against a significant opponent. Stay tuned for further developments in the zoning wars.
Then there are those tiny home villages springing up in cities such as Kansas City, Seattle, Detroit and Nashville. Constructed in sets of a dozen or so, they are intended largely to address homelessness, particularly of military veterans living in those communities. Though politically sensitive, these tiny neighborhoods have found new homes, with prospects for serious growth. They open the possibilities for other potential residents of affordable housing.
Finally, recent reports in the news media indicate a growing awareness of a dramatic need for innovative senior housing. Long-term care insurer General Electric, for example—a relatively recent service line for this traditional American manufacturer—has developed coverage obligations of billions of dollars for their aging customers—some $15 billion covering 300,000 policies. Other insurers covering nursing home and assistive living services customers now reaching their 70s and 80s are encountering similar, nearly crippling obligations, posing a serious threat to the continuation of the long-term care insurance option.
Senior housing providers in general are starting to realize that the “Silver Tsunami” they’ve been awaiting of seniors in need is now only a few years away. The leading-edge of 74 million Baby Boomers, now just passing 70, will arrive at their true ages of need in their 80s. The gaping holes in affordability yawn ever closer.
Senior economist Chris Farrell summed up the situation in a recent newsletter discussing the issue: “I think Washington is going to learn the same lesson that GE and its investors learned the hard way. You can ignore this cost for a period of time, but eventually that bill comes due.”
The cost may, in fact, be unsustainable, and the only real solution will be affordable options.
The headaches of Living Small
One of the obvious but seldom discussed aspects of living in a small space is simply getting used to it. A 3 bedroom home or a 1200 square foot apartment it isn’t. 300 square feet or less could seem a little, well, claustrophobic.
Contemplating a granny pod or microapartment, you wonder: Will the walls seem as though they’re closing in? What about those bad or annoying smells from pets, cooking or what have you? Are you afraid that visitors will drop in, take one look, and start a fundraising for you?
That’s pushing it a bit, but there’s no question that moving into a small space will take adjusting.
Here’s where the ingenuity of small home design comes in. Everything should be designed to give you as much clean, well-lit, safe and convenient space as possible. That flexible furniture we discussed elsewhere in this blog—movable, foldable, adjustable in size and height, will be crucial. So will the semi- or non-visible support technologies, such as motion sensors, voice-activated assist devices, medication management tools and more.
Small does not mean simple. It takes every bit of the creative, sensitive design thinking any other successful living space will take.
There’s another consideration: If you’re planning to occupy this as a couple, and at least one of you is built like a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, this might not be for you.
So be careful when considering your options. Also take care to be as well informed as you can about what those options might be. These are changing and developing all the time—but, in this day of the online search, research should be easy and even fun.
And we’ll try to keep you posted and updated.
Small Homes Update
A major obstacle to the widespread adoption of small-space living in the United States has been the slowness and often reluctance of local government to reform zoning practices to allow it. Many seem to equate it with some pint-size version of a trailer park. But some counties around the country are taking a serious second look as being a solution for future housing difficulties http://www.naco.org/articles/more-counties-see-big-opportunities-tiny-homes
Along the same lines, a recent Affordable Housing Week observed by a Utah county confronted the need for government at all levels to address the growing need seniors have for safe, comfortable and affordable housing options, including tiny homes of 300-500 square feet https://www.heraldextra.com/news/local/central/tiny-home-showcase-continues-affordable-housing-push/article_4412d625-a4e6-5d75-985f-c855a75c6f66.html
If the behemoth known as Google does anything these days it’s big news, and that includes a recent report that Google is exploring ways to incorporate its Nest motion detection sensor technology in development of safe senior housing, allowing close but not intrusive monitoring of residents’ activities—an essential ingredient for practical small housing alternatives https://www.cnbc.com/2018/07/20/google-nest-senior-living-aging.html
By the same token, this report sounds a cautionary note on Amazon’s voice-activated assistants Alexa and Echo which, while easier for seniors to adapt to than screen based or keyboard activated devices, require paying careful attention to the particular communication challenges many seniors face