Co.Design

FabCab Builds Universal Design Prefabs for "Aging in Place"

These affordable houses are designed for all abilities.


As Baby Boomers slowly inch towards retirement, the United States will see a unique housing boom as more Americans than ever will be in need of residences that respond to their changing needs. In the next 15 to 20 years, the number of residents aged 65 and over will double in the U.S. And in the same period, the number of residents aged 85 and over will triple. Increasingly, this demographic will need places to live that are accessible to a range of abilities and convenient to their families and caretakers, but homes that still help them retain their all-important autonomy. FabCab is a company that specializes in creating affordable, modern prefab homes for our graying population, yet designs them in a way that appeals to people of all ages and abilities.

AGING IN PLACE
FabCab founder Emory Baldwin began his architectural career working on housing projects for seniors 13 years ago when he was saddened by the cold, overly-institutional residences that sapped his clients' independence and self-esteem. "These were better than nursing homes in the past, but I wanted to keep people in their own homes as long as possible," he remembers. He knew that the key was designing structures that don't require a major relocation in the latter stages of life, but the issue was the way houses are conventionally designed, which didn't allow for small changes without major renovations, he says. "They needed to be modified heavily in order for an aging population to live in them."


At the other end of the health care spectrum was Maura Parente, who began working at a skilled nursing facility and was "hit over the head" by the user-unfriendly environment. She left health care to study design and focus on this concept of "aging in place" from a product perspective. When she connected with Baldwin, she was able to assist in realizing Baldwin's goal of providing this underserved market with smart, efficient architecture. Using the prefab model, houses designed for an aging audience could be assembled on-site like guest cottages in backyards so children could keep their parents close to them, even while they retained their independence. Beyond the convenience factor, these structures could be designed using non-toxic, natural materials for a healthy environment, plus they could take advantage of existing infrastructure like plumbing and electrical to make them more affordable than most retirement communities.

UNIVERSAL DESIGN
When you look at a home that's been designed with Universal Design principles in mind, the most major differences are actually quite simple ones, says Baldwin. He started with the front door, where 90% of houses have 2-3 steps leading up to the porch. FabCabs are designed with a seamless, gradual entry that doesn't look like a ramp, rather it's completely integrated into the landscaping, feeling permanent and purposeful. In fact, using Universal Design elements often enhance the overall design: Using wider door frames throughout the space, as well as sliding doors with easy-to-use handles, actually succeed in making the space feel bigger and more open.


The biggest differences you might notice are in the bathroom and kitchen, where the way certain appliances are situated to be modified for use by a range of abilities. But in recent years many manufacturers have stepped up their products to make them not only more accessible, but also more aesthetically pleasing. Elements like walk-in showers, which once looked like they belonged in hospital rooms, are now being used in homes due to their space-saving abilities. And many hard-to-turn shower knobs have been replaced with faucets that respond to a firm push instead. Also offered in the FabCab are wall-hung toilets and floating vanities, which allow easy access around them, and in the kitchen, appliances like dishwashers and refrigerators that open more like a drawers, which are easier for both wheelchair users and standing people. To keep residents healthy and safe, finishes like an anti-microbial glaze for tile, and grippy cork mosaic flooring are employed to prevent illness or falls.

INVISIBLE ACCESSIBILITY
One question that confronted the FabCab team early on was whether or not to market their homes as "Universal Design," since there is a stigma attached to the phrase that makes people think they're only for the elderly or wheelchair users. If you look at a brand like the OXO tools, which have an easy-to-grasp ergonomic grip, notes Baldwin, those were created with Universal Design principles, yet they were never sold that way. He likes to think of FabCab's design as "invisible accessibility"—acknowledging the needs of their niche audience, yet using design to make it appealing to a wider group. Baldwin, who lives in a conventionally-built home designed with Universal Design principles that served as a demo for the FabCab line, says his entire family takes advantage of its features. "When you make things accessible, you make them easier for everyone to use."


The modern design really aids the feeling of "invisible accessibility" with its ability to utilize an open floorplan and wide spaces in a way that feels natural. So natural, in fact, that some potential clients actually have a hard time seeing the major differences from a conventional home. "Right now, the majority of our clients just see a well-designed project," says Parente. "We were thrilled at the home show, some young 20-year-old said it was a great bachelor pad, and another guy said it was a chick magnet," remembers Baldwin. "Then an older couple came through who was in their seventies and said, 'This would be perfect for our mother.'"

TRUE GREEN LIVING
After a launch at this year's Seattle Home Show, FabCab has hit the market, with 14 clients currently in the design phase. After comparing quotes from several builders, FabCab estimates that its 550 square-foot model will cost about $145,000—and that's turn-key, including installation, materials and all appliances and finishes within. FabCab is also speaking with developers to create a community of units—a prefab center that can be made appropriate for any age. Plus, an upcoming relationship with AARP will help bring the concept of sustainability and aging in place to a wider audience at the AARP's upcoming convention.


But what Baldwin and Parente would really like to see are Universal Design principles becoming the standard for all housing. They can see these principles spreading into conventionally-designed houses as part of the ultimate sustainable housing movement, even becoming a crucial part of green building, just like a LEED checklist. Ensuring that a residence can be as functional for a person who is 40 as it is for a person who is 80 would be a real breakthrough for affordable, sustainable housing, says Baldwin. "If you design a house correctly from the start, it's less likely to need renovation down the road," says Baldwin. "That's something that gets missed in the green movement."


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