How do you design a home where you can age gracefully? In previous posts I've suggested that our first priority should be to put it in a walkable community because the ability to drive safely will be one of the first things to go. I've also looked at a house that was perhaps an example of what not to do.

But are there things that we could do to every house and apartment, that wouldn’t cost too much money, add too much floor area or make it look too institutional? In British Columbia, Canada, the Safer Homes Standards Society has some good ideas. The group's intent is to “meet the needs of the largest buyer group while offering a stylish and more livable environment for all people, no matter what age or walk of life.”

What they've done is fascinating, because it's so subtle. It’s a tweak of what's normally done by builders, but enough of a tweak to make a real difference. Gordon Porter, the executive director of SAFERhomes, tells the Journal of Commerce: “We're trying to get builders to build homes that instead of being for 80 percent of the population, they can be for anybody. "If you're building a home, why wouldn't you build it for 100 percent of the market?” But the differences are barely noticeable, unlike some more elaborate interventions.

…when people hear "aging in place" or universal design, they visualize an institutional-type home. "With SAFERHome Standards, the house looks normal, not like a clinic," Porter said.

Adaptability is the key

Safer homes infographic This check list is not so tough to knock out. (Photo: SAFERhomes)

It's pretty basic stuff, too. Corridors are a bit wider at minimum of 40 inches instead of the standard 36; doorways at minimum 34 inches instead of the usual 30. (They say 36 is ideal, but to a normal user, that starts feeling institutional.) Reinforcing is provided in walls where grab bars may be needed. Vanities are designed so that lower cabinets can be removed. In multi-story homes, either make the stairs 42 inches wide (to provide room for a stair lift) or stack two closets that are big enough for a future elevator.

For electrical, raise the outlets, lower the switches, add outlet boxes for future needs (for example, at the bottom of stairs for the future lift or over entry doors for future automatic openers). The group's electrical standard is showing its age, with recommendations for computer and telephone wiring in a wireless age and none for use of LEDs and discussions of lighting levels, but it's a good starting point.

Plumbing changes are relatively minor too; moving the controls so that people don’t have to reach in so far, careful positioning of waste pipes, and pressure/temperature controls.

None of the SAFERhome changes are particularly expensive; many are free. Porter estimates that it costs $420 for an apartment or single-floor house and about $800 for a standard home. They note also that it looks better: “Wider doorways, hallways and stairs all add up to a feeling of open space, creating a sense of flow that greatly increases the esthetic appeal and real estate value of any home.”

The SAFERhome people make a sustainability argument that hits home too:

Sustainable building practices are becoming a necessity, as the world’s population ages. Statistics show that by the year 2032, 48 percent of North Americans will be 65 years of age or older. It is inevitable that homes and home-related products and services will have to adapt to the changing needs of the community. As a society, we are rapidly depleting our natural resources and it is imperative that we revisit the materials and processes used to construct our homes.

Renovations create a lot of waste, take a lot of time and are often expensive compared to new construction. It saves resources of every kind to plan ahead.

SAFERhome has been around in British Columbia for 25 years, and Porter says that projects that follow these rules sell quickly, for about 5 percent more than conventional housing, which more than pays for the extra costs. They are on to something here — thoughtful, simple changes that don’t cost the Earth but make houses livable longer. It's a model that should have a wider audience.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.