I try to avoid using my blog for venting, but after reading yet another article on small energy efficient home designs and living small, I've got to give these designers a few things to think about.
Let me say to them and their ilk, I applaud your effort. More ideas, more creativity, more experimentation in simple living is a good thing. The development of new forms of energy efficient homes and modular living quarters can't progress quickly enough. But my message to them is this: Before you get carried away with ladders to loft bedrooms, mattresses on the floor, all-white no-clutter decorating schemes, and not one comfortable chair in sight, let me tell you I'm giving instructions to my kids never to place me in such a home when I'm in my dotage.
One look at such a place would inform them of all the tasks THEY would need to perform on a daily basis to keep me there. Changing the bed linens aside, most of these new designs are about as appealing to an older person as a prison cell.
Since this is my opening salvo for more articles to come, I'm only going to provide a few examples of what does or doesn't make sense when designing living spaces for seniors--or anyone for that matter. In this regard, recreational vehicle manufacturers and retirement homes have come a lot closer to getting it right, when it comes to making a small home or apartment functional, comfortable and a pleasure to live in. The challenge is to add in the very features the designers are working on--energy efficiency and a smaller ecological footprint for the dwelling. Affordability will come later I suppose.
In working the other way around, energy features first, the liveability of the place becomes an after thought. That's ok for right now, but I hope to see both ends meet in the middle soon.
Revelation: Older people want to enjoy life. They want homes that allow them to continue to do their favorite things without being dependent upon others. That could range from quilting to woodworking to gardening to hosting family dinner parties with grandkids underfoot, to cycling or sightseeing or dining out. They want to preserve their lifestyle, not make a huge change in it.
If they are home-based hobbiests or crafters, they will want a smaller home that can accommodate these activities. If they are used to going elsewhere for recreation and social life, a smaller dwelling may be just the thing--but access to the community remains a challenge.
Older people want to be comfortable, and that may mean a favorite old chair or handy bed for stretching out one's achy back in the middle of the day. They often need to stay warmer than younger folks. They want their favorite objects with them, like family photos or their grandmother's China teacups or the old cabinet their uncle built and gave them for a wedding gift. Continuity of past and present matters. Unless an older person has already chosen a glass and steel designer home with modern furnishings as their ideal, don't expect them to find much appeal in it.
Most activities that I find fun are messy, and since most of them are multi-day or even multi-week projects, the mess is going to remain out or only be partially contained at the end of the day. Such uses of a home seem foreign to designers. They often provide a skeletal version of a home office, and yes I do need that, but it is only one of several functions that need space. That pedestal table with a lone laptop atop it won't suit me for a working office, let alone for sewing or crafting. It is just a way of "staging" the home, you may say. I prefer to see how real life plays out, inside one.
Spaces in small homes have to be able to multi-task, but a Murphy bed seems to be the only idea I've spotted in new designs, and that's at the bottom of my list of tradeoffs. Clever ways to use space are still in short supply, outside of the RV industry.
Now consider what I've observed in actual model green homes and home designs:
1. It seems obligatory to put in a wheel-chair accessible bathroom and a "wet room" type of shower. However, there are no grab bars or other conveniences that would make a bathroom work for the infirm elderly who handle bathroom functions on their own--as most older persons would do. How do they keep the soap in reach and the towel dry until needed? I don't want to use a bathroom that is cold, damp, and slippery from a recent shower--or have to dry it all off before using the room for its other purposes. In our 23-foot travel trailer, one of us can shower while the other one uses the other facilities.
2. Aside from the bathroom, nothing else in the designed homes I've seen is wheel-chair accessible. In fact, little else is accessible at all to anyone not tall and physically fit--whose body works like a college student's. I'm not saying the entire dwelling should be wheel-chair accessible. Rather, there should be accommodation first for the way people will spend the most years living there, and design should allow for inexpensive conversions as they become necessary. Part wheel-chair accessible and the rest not is impractical for all ages and capabilities.
3. Storage walls are very popular with some interior designers. These consist of a wall of cabinets, all flush from floor to ceiling with no distinguishing features. When my husband and I moved from one house to another three years ago, it took months for the different storage arrangements to become ingrained and automatic. Imagine the learning curve if everything were behind a wall of identical cupboard doors? Besides, I don't want to look at a blank wall.
Not that going entirely with dust-catching open shelves or glass doors are preferable. It's just that a couple of open shelves, a few doors in a contrasting style or pattern or color, a spot to hang a picture or display a plant, or an area of counter top as a staging area on which to set the objects being removed or replaced into storage would come in handy and provide visual clues to remembering what was where. In my experience living in small spaces, storage walls are simply a poor option for storage, and worse yet for older people.
In our 23 foot travel trailer, there are small cupboards and nooks handy to every activity. Extra bedding is stored under the mattress, night wear and sweatshirts above the bed (but still in easy reach), items needed while in bed stored bedside, office supplies by the table, grooming gear in open mesh baskets attached to the bathroom wall or in the medicine chest or under the sink. All logical, simple arrangements that designers shun but everyone needs. Even those of us who simplify our lives still end up with more than a toothbrush to store in or near the bathroom.
4. Many of the new "green" homes being designed in competitions manage to heat space and water from renewable energy sources. Often a clothes washer is included in the energy consumption calculations of the home, but I've never seen a dryer. No problem with that, but one must then design for another way to deal with wet clothing. It amuses me that designers prefer to ignore the issue rather than design solutions for it.
Outdoor clothes hanging doesn't always work. Before the days of clothes dryers, people used porches, basements, and attics to hang clothing and linens to dry during inclement weather. They put drying racks up in kitchens and bathrooms for small items. And they thought twice before tossing a barely soiled item into the laundry hamper. Water for laundry did not come from wells but from rainwater collected in cisterns.
It doesn't seem genuine to me to design for functional living in a small efficient space unless one includes all the functions of a household.
Designers repeat the mantra "form follows function" when in fact they are the group most likely to ignore it. Ordinary people have been creating habitats to fit their functional needs for millenia.
Yet I believe professional designers do matter, if only to present to us an ideal we might like to achieve however impractical. Translation into real life is left to others to figure out. Many of us enjoy the fantasy of relaxing in a living room devoid of all save a lovely view and an interesting play of sunlight and shadow on walls and floors. Something as mundane as a place to store the dog's food and water bowl, or a place by the entry for wet shoes or muddy boots is not what we look for when dreaming of a new home. That is why we continue to look at all the latest plans that feed our fancy more than our needs.
Let's get a little more harmony going between aesthetics and functional efficiencies, designing for energy and resource-efficient function of the interior spaces we need for enjoyment as well as for comfort and security. And above all, if we seniors are a group targeted for placement in granny flats and pre-fabricated bedrooms set in a corner of our kids' backyard, then please heed my advice. Ask us first.