-By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
Since aging is a universal process, building modifications can benefit all long-term tenants as well as resident apartment owners, although some require significant space, budget, or staff, depending on the existing building conditions.
Many of these suggested improvements would make buildings and apartments more livable for residents of all ages, although as people age, they can become predisposed to diminished functional capacity.
Slip and trip avoidance is a major part of a safe environment, so installing handrails on both sides of stairs, ramps, and hallways, 34” to 38” above stair treads or floor, is an important element. Handrails should be 1-1/4” to 2” in diameter with a slip-resistant surface for a secure grip, and should extend 1 foot beyond the edge of the top stair, and 1 foot plus the depth of a tread at the bottom of the stair.
WLikewise, providing grab bars in Bathrooms, at tubs, showers and toilets, can greatly enhance the safety of this room. Since installing grab bars with wall reinforcement must be by a professional and securely anchored to wall studs or masonry, this will take careful coordination, as illustrated above. Do not rely on towel bars or suction-cup grab bars, as these cannot support enough weight.
Slip-resistant flooring or an anti-slip bathtub or shower mat are must-haves; use a contrasting color for the bath or shower for clearer definition. Install vertical grab bars at the tub or shower threshold. Shower-door tracks should not be installed on the bathtub rim as they can impede entry. Walk-in or no-threshold shower with appropriate drainage and curb-less shower doors (or provide a shower curtain rod) would be a big improvement if an extensive remodeling is feasible.
Bathtub enclosures should not obstruct controls, faucets, shower and spray units, which should be easily reachable. Lever handles are easier to use than round knobs or handles. Locate shower or bath controls for caregiver access or provide two sets of controls, and install handheld and adjustable showerhead that allows the shower to be used while standing or sitting.
Anti-scald water devices must be used, since water temperature should be limited to 120 degrees maximum.
Consider installing a sink with a removable cabinet below and a reachable mirror and medicine cabinet, which would provide access for a person in a wheelchair. The sink height should be 34” maximum, and medicine cabinets should be placed at 35” to 40” from the floor to the bottom of the cabinet.
Depending on a person’s leg strength or balance, consider a bidet toilet seat unit, or use a toilet seat riser to provide 17” to 19” seat height. Look for easily visible, lever-type flush controls, rather than push button or rounded ones, if replacing a toilet. Make sure to locate the toilet paper holder so it can be easily reached from the toilet seat.
Shop for universally-designed equipment, fixtures, and cabinets. Glow-In-The-Dark light switches would certainly come in handy.
Install electrical outlets at 18” to 24” above the floor for easier access if doing extensive remodeling. Think about a shelf or other surface at the front door for keys, bags and packages.
When replacing windows, consider awning-type units, which are easiest to operate and clean.
In Kitchens, provide lever-type hardware for sink and storage closet doors. Install a faucet spray unit, soap dispenser, and a water filter with a remote (accessible) switch at the sink.
Install soft-closing cabinets and a removable under-sink cabinet, with D-type pulls on cabinets and drawers to allow easier opening. Choose drawers instead of base cabinets to improve access to the contents therein. Consider at least one upper cabinet installed so that bottom shelf is at 48” above the floor, and adequate work surfaces and pull-out cutting boards.
Be sure to locate cabinets so that they do not require reaching over hot surfaces or stove. Wall ovens and microwaves should be at countertop level, adjacent to an accessible horizontal surface at 34” height, to create a work area accessible from a seated position. Tables should be 28” to 34” tall, with an adjacent 30” x 48” clear floor space for wheelchair usage and 27” minimum knee clearance underneath. Seating should have arms and backs, and provide sturdy, comfortable seating, with seat height at 17” to 19”, and depth of no more than 24”.
Provide trash and recycling receptacles with secure lids and adjacent plastic bag storage.
Remodeling for inclusiveness should consider age, gender, race, disabilities, height, pets, etc., and avoid elements that require high levels of strength and dexterity to operate.
Every individual apartment should have an easy-to-use intercom system connecting the building front door. A visual intercom system accommodates people who are deaf or hard of hearing and can increase their security; consider additional intercom units in bedrooms and kitchens.
It is quite easy to add remote controls adjacent to the bed for lighting, fan, video, audio, phone, and other types of wireless devices, with many to choose from.
Using the guide, building owners can help residents remain in their homes as they age—safely, comfortably, and independently.
Brian J. Pape is a citizen architect in private practice, serving on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee and Quality of Life Committee (speaking solely in a personal, and not an official capacity), Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, is a member of AIANY Historic Buildings and Housing Committees, is LEED-AP “Green” certified, and is a journalist specializing in architecture subjects.