Design Blog

Living Well and Happily

I have been thinking about quality of life issues lately.  There was a show on TV recently, featuring several well-known actors and comedians who are well into their 90s and living lives full of work and socializing. How do they do it, you ask? As a designer, I always try to bring these social issues back to a design problem.  A good designer asks how solid and tangible design solutions can contribute to a life of quality and fulfillment.

My clients generally want to achieve the highest level of self-care.  They view their physical or medical limitations as just a problem to be solved.  Like many others, I have come to believe that two of the most important self-care routines are those that involve physical activity and food preparation.  The benefits of accomplishing these two routine activities contribute greatly to an overall quality of life.  And, this is true also for other important benchmark activities, such as personal hygiene, pursuing hobbies, and being able to shop for healthy food.

Studies have shown that perception of control over life tasks increases overall satisfaction and happiness.  Knowing that quality of life is important, a designer can shift the focus to the most important and valued tasks for a particular client. No longer is quality of life simply measured by managing a physical or medical limitation, there should be excitement and energy for the coming day!

I do not have a photo or illustration for you today, so let us imagine this.  You or your loved one wants to cook a few times a week.  But you are concerned about the logistics and safety of how this task can be accomplished.  This is why I sometimes propose an electric cooktop, separate from a gas or electric oven.  The cooktop can be fitted with an automatic shut off that is timed or motion-activated to ensure that the element does not remain on after the cooking is done.   The oven can be secured in many different ways to remain closed and off.  All of the important pieces of equipment are situated in one area of the kitchen for convenience.  The task of cooking may take longer, but the satisfaction of preparing your own meal is priceless.

The Aesthetics of Accessible Design

Ideas to bring function and beauty together in your aging in place renovation

People sometimes believe that function and aesthetics are opposing efforts and cannot be achieved at the same time in accessible design and aging in place renovations.  When something is beautiful to look at, it’s functionality must be lacking.  And if an object is functional, it must be ugly.  This dynamic is always important in accessible design, and will be an ongoing theme in many of my upcoming blog posts.  Here are some general ideas to bring function and aesthetic together in an aging in place renovation.

Most of my clients begin with function when describing their list of needs and wants.   Functionality is undoubtedly the first criteria to consider when undertaking a home modification project.  Successful aging in place depends on your ability to support a full and active life in your own home.  You want to be able to take care of yourself, entertain your loved ones, and pursue your interests.  Creating a welcoming, light-filled space is every bit as important as setting a grab bar at the right height.  A carefully designed renovation maximizes both the function and the aesthetics of your home. 

The aesthetic benefits of an accessible renovation can be more difficult to quantify than the functional benefits.  Yet they are just as real, and possibly more important in the long run. New construction results in overall improvements to your home.  As the interior space opens up during a renovation, it becomes lighter and brighter.  Replacing or adding windows and widening doorways add more light to the interior.  New doors and windows will be more energy efficient, and save you money.  Changing out door knobs to lever handles benefits not only those who have trouble turning a knob, but also anyone who has an arm load of shopping bags.  Updated finishes provide a fresh look and are easier to keep clean.  Overall, many aging in place renovations will make your home a more welcoming environment and make your home more marketable in the future.

So, let’s think of it as function partnered with aesthetics that is the hallmark of a successful aging in place renovation.

New Year, New Plans

Happy New Year!   Even if you do not make New Year’s resolutions, most of us do think about where we have been and where we want to go when the calendar turns over to a new year.    If 2018 is the year that you’ve decided to finally start modify your house to accommodate your changing needs as you grow older or live with a disability, let’s look at some general ideas to jump start your thinking.  Our theme for 2018 is to Age Well!

First, safety and function come first.  Be honest with yourself.   Maybe you aren’t the person who should be going up on a ladder to change light bulbs or clean the gutters.  You can still do it, but the risk/cost factor is probably too steep. If you fall and injure yourself, you’ll likely endure a longer and more painful recovery than when you were a younger person.  So now is the time to arrange for a handyman to help with these things around the house, or to install gutter covers to eliminate the problem.  If you can, continue to do the things that you can safely do, because these small tasks can contribute to your overall satisfaction with life.

Next is a theme you have heard from me many times before: do things that add quality to your life.  Arrange your household and your circumstances to accommodate something that gives you happiness or expands your possibilities.   If you like to bake, set up a mini baking center in your kitchen where everything you need is close at hand and easily accessed.  Things don’t have to stay where they have been for the last forty years!   Shake it up a bit! If you are taking a new class, make sure that you can get in and out of your house safely and easily.

Finally, enlist the help of your community, otherwise known as your family and friends.  Oftentimes when I meet with my clients, I meet with additional family members as well.  These are the people who understand your desire to stay in the home that you love.  They are the people who can help you make the right financial decisions.   There is a lot of decision making that goes into any home renovation project to decide what is necessary and affordable, and what is worth stretching the budget to accomplish.  Your loved ones can help ease the way through all of the changes, too.  It may be difficult for you to reconcile yourself to some of the changes, but keep in mind that, when the time comes, an updated home is much easier to sell for a reasonable price than an out of date home.

*Always consult with your healthcare provider before making any changes that may affect your health.

Home Automation-It’s Easy and Intuitive!

Let’s take a look at easy to implement home automation ideas that many people with limited mobility will find very useful.

If you are as handy as the average person and have a smart phone, there are simple options to begin to make some everyday tasks easier.  For a modest investment, you can get a system that controls your lighting, thermostat, electrical outlets, audio and home theater and some security cameras.  The do-it-on-your-own home automation industry is going through an exciting period of growth right now.  The reliability and features of two major systems, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home, have improved dramatically over the past year.  Next year promises even more functionality and new devices that are compatible with these hubs.

Let’s look at the Amazon Alexa hub.  Over the past year, Alexa and its smaller component, the Echo, improved in reliability and added new devices and functionality to the system.  Alexa’s starting retail price is $180 and many of the devices that can be controlled by the hub retail for around $30 each.  As a smart home hub, Alexa acts as the controller for smart plugs like Wemo, TPLink, and Belkin.  You simply plug in the appliance into the smart plug, plug that into the wall outlet, and add the appliance to the app on your smartphone.  The outlet can then be controlled by your voice command via Alexa.

Installing smart bulbs like the Phillips Hue or Sylvania’s smart bulb is equally as easy.  The bulbs need another small controller, the Phillips Bridge or Samsung’s Smart Things, to convert your home’s wifi signal to a Zigbee, or z signal, which talks to the bulbs.  Alexa can control thermostats like the Nest, Sense from Emerson, and the Lyric line of thermostats from Honeywell.  If you have a newer smart TV, add that to the list.

A full line up of supported smart home devices for Alexa can be found on the Amazon website.  Just search for Echo Home compatible devices on the Amazon home page.

The information and entertainment functionality of Alexa is equally impressive, and like the expanding list of devices, promises to grow rapidly in the next few years.  Alexa’s built in speaker plays music, and will inform you about the news or the weather.  It answers questions with internet connectivity.  Alexa handles your shopping lists, and provides a timer and an alarm function.  One new feature allows you to add five contacts to the Ask My Buddy list. Ask My Buddy calls, texts or emails your contacts via your voice command, helping to ensure your safety and security.  The rumor in the tech world is that Amazon will add a touch screen to the table top model in 2017, which promises new functions for Alexa to control.

If you have the resources, you may want to use a professional installer who will guide you through the most useful applications and devices for you, install the hardware and configure the software, and teach you how to use the system.  This can be a costly option, and isn’t really necessary.  Some home security or internet providers are moving into this market with hardware and plan level options, and monthly monitoring plans.

Next time, we’ll look more closely at other easy home automation ideas, including smart thermostats, tvs and doorbells.


A small story….

woodpileIn the spring of 2014, my client Lily experienced the kind of change in circumstances that life seems to throw at you.  Her husband suffered a stroke and passed away.  She found herself living alone in a two story home with her beloved beagles and her pesky parakeets for companions.  This house had been her home since the beginning of her marriage in 1953.  She did not want to leave.  After some time had passed, we met to discuss a home renovation that would help her remain in her house and live independently.  By adding a 14’ x 30’ addition to the side of her house, an existing small room was renovated to a first floor master bedroom suite complete with a walk in closet and a renovated accessible bathroom.  The living room expanded to include a new open floor plan.  New energy efficient windows helped to create a light and bright space that was a joy to spend time in.  She even requested a gas fireplace with a remote control to complete the ambiance of the space.

Lily does not need a great deal of help right now.  She has family members who stop by a couple of times a week and pays a neighborhood girl to walk her dogs.  But Lily has set herself up for the possibility of living successfully in her own home for years to come.