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When I'm 84

Designers prepare for the silver tsunami

If you are building a new home, advises developer Dan Gainsboro of Concord, Massachusetts, design the closets so they stack floor-to-floor. That way, they can easily convert into an elevator shaft. Think elevators are for high-rises? Think again. Elevators are coming to a single-family home near you — perhaps your own — sooner than you think.

It’s just one of the many shifts transforming architecture in the wake of the “gray wave,” the maturation of the baby boom generation. Boomers (the 77 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964) have been defying cultural norms for the past 50 years. They are the “do your own thing” generation, keen on ignoring old rules and imagining new ones. They famously pushed for civil rights; feminism; environmentalism; and now, moving into their 50s and beyond, they are changing the physical world as well.

The first baby boomer turned 65 on January 1, 2011. Today an American turns 50 every seven seconds. By 2015, the 50-and-older age group will represent 45 percent of the US population, according to the AARP. Add to this the fact that older Americans control more than 75 percent of the nation’s wealth, and the recipe for unprecedented change is clear.

“It’s the silver tsunami,” said Sigrid Miller Pollin, professor of architecture and design at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst. “There’s this huge age wave of baby boomers, and their thoughts and demands are different from the previous generations.”

Elder-care providers debate whether architects, and society at large, are at all prepared for the magnitude of the shift. With advances in healthcare and preventative treatments, “we’ve added nearly three decades to the human life span,” said Len Fishman, former head of Hebrew SeniorLife, a Harvard-affiliated senior health and living nonprofit. “Our thinking is trailing the demographic phenomenon, [which] is only now being experienced and is impossible to overstate.” It’s a situation vastly different from what humanity has ever experienced, he adds, one where old ideas about retirement won’t hold.

Just how the difference will manifest is unfolding. Baby boomers seem to be feeling their way, making things up as they go. For many, imagining getting old at all is best avoided. As a group, they tend to harbor a lot of fear and denial about their eventual physical decline, said Angelina Gennis, research assistant at MIT’s AgeLab, which studies how new technologies can maintain quality of life in an elderly population. When it comes to housing choices, “boomers don’t want to be treated differently because they’re aging,” she said. She sees them as shunning anything with “implications that they might be limited some day.”

One thing that is clear is that women are prime movers in charting these new arrangements, said Martin Siefering, a senior-living specialist and principal at Perkins Eastman. “They’re better-educated, demanding consumers.” The fact that more baby-boomer women have a college education than ever before in history fuels the trend, as does the fact that more women have worked outside the home, he said. And women outlive men, by an average of five years. But boomers of either gender share a general unwillingness to follow the rules. “They question everything, every step along the way,” Siefering said.

For all the unruliness, key trends emerge. For one, baby boomers tend not to want to copy their parents. “Their predecessors moved into senior centers, but this generation is choosing to stay home,” said Gennis. That’s something Gainsboro, the Concord developer, sees, too. He said it contributed to the success of Riverwalk, the 13-unit cottage community he built in West Concord, which broke ground in 2010 and recently sold out. Ten of the 13 new owners are baby boomers. “These are people interested in being part of a mixed-age community who clearly didn’t want to be in an age-restricted setting,” he said.

View of the commons from the Community Gardens; the three-season community pavilion is on the right. Photo by Nat Rea Photography.






Click here for images of Riverwalk.

Second, baby boomers prize efficiency. At Riverwalk, houses are 1,300 to 1,700 square feet, some 30 percent smaller than a typical American house. Cottages have an open first-floor plan, long views, lots of windows, and nine-foot ceilings, which make them seem larger. All have living and dining rooms, a kitchen, a master bedroom, and a bath on the first floor.

Third, boomers seek flexibility. Pollin, who also runs Miller Pollin Architecture in Amherst, sees boomers planning for “aging in place” and designing homes that allow them to do so. This could mean “building a core or small unit with stairs and adding on to it with a pod or modular unit or several units,” she said, and lead to radical alternatives such as removing pods when children leave. It is these concepts students in her UMass studios explore.

Although many boomers struggle to imagine their future mobility — or immobility — the interest in installing home elevators is growing, abetted by advances in lift technology. In Newton and Brookline, where high land costs make designing a one-story home prohibitive, rehabs now frequently call for elevators, said Michael Kim, principal of Michael Kim Associates in Brookline. He routinely specifies them in house renovations there. These additions can cost $25,000 to $35,000, so obviously they are not a solution for everyone.

On the other hand, boomers may reject elevators entirely, Pollin said. “Having everything on one floor is more comfortable because you don’t have to rely on an electrical mechanism,” she said, which could break down and, at a minimum, require generator backup.

Universal design, once treated as a subcategory of design for the disabled, is also gaining ground, pushed by the boomer bulge. House plans will more likely accommodate the five-foot turning radius of a wheelchair in the future, for example, and have entranceways built with low thresholds, wide doors, and door-lever hardware instead of knobs.

The need to recognize that functional limitation is a fact of life informs the work of the Institute for Human Centered Design, a nonprofit in Boston that promotes universal design. “Our context is disabling,” said Valerie Fletcher, executive director, who said the challenge today is to “create environments where people can perform at their best from 20 to 80 years old.”

This means architects need to pay much more attention to acoustics and lighting in workplaces and at home. “We need twice as much lighting at age 60 as at 40 to accomplish the same tasks,” Fletcher said, adding that natural light plays a key role in improving functional and intellectual abilities. “Architects really need to think about how to make our brains work better,” she advised, “because none of us are going to retire.”

Many of the changes in house design and programming are just common sense. “An architect can go from ignorance to effective design for seniors without tremendous effort,” Fishman said. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit.” What’s harder is coming to grips with the idea that the typical American three- or four-bedroom single-family house may be nearing the end of its useful life. Fishman sees our current atomized living arrangement of one house per family as “a little blip in human history.” He recalls how multiple generations frequently lived under one roof or took in boarders during World War II; the Depression; and, indeed, throughout most of human history. “Multigenerational living is more cost-effective and socially enriching,” he said, predicting its return in the near future.

He is not alone. Anticipating an extended family arrangement informs the work of Ray Mann of RK Studio Architecture in Amherst, which focuses on the needs of the “sandwich” generation — baby boomers who may care for both their kids and their parents at the same time. Mann designs houses with two separate entryways and two separate patios so that two generations can enjoy privacy while still sharing spaces, including “a solar courtyard,” which brings greenery and joy into the bleakness of winter. It all fits into 2,000 square feet (excluding the sun space) and provides office space for work at home as well as three bedrooms, she said. For this experiment in multigenerational living, the architect didn’t need to go far: Her first case study was her own house, built to include her parents.

Baby boomers, social agitators to the end, are changing the built world, too. They wouldn’t have it any other way.