SPECULATIVE – The “Impersonal & Short-Sighted” House

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Look at this photo.  What’s wrong with it?  The answer is simple, but the premise is much deeper and more disturbing…

The drawer in the bathroom at my own (speculative “spec”) home, won’t open all the way when the in-swinging door to the bathroom is in the fully open position (which of course you would open this door all the way, to enter and use the small 5’x8′ standard speculative house bathroom).  None of the drawers in this cabinet would work / open all the way with this bathroom door open.  This is one of only 2 drawers in the room’s sink cabinet for storage, as well – the top one is actually false, because they also made the mistake of where the sink plumbing is located in the wall, which won’t allow the location for the top drawer to function as it should, so it had to be taken out and a “false front” had to be installed.  As a homeowner, annoying.  As an architect, a disturbing and frustrating lack of consideration.

But there is a bigger issue for me, as a CAPS “Certified Aging in Place Specialist” focused on the future of housing in the U.S. related to the explosion in the aging baby boomer and less-able populations staring us dead in the face in the next 3 decades of my career.  This issue is the overall thoughtlessness in design that is painfully prevalent in the majority of these “speculative” houses, built by developers and builders, without a trained “Architect” on the design team or staff.  Most builders are “self professed designers”, at a minimum in their own mind, but more typically also as explained openly to the client.  This is a dangerous proposition, in my opinion.  Not only does it regularly cut out my profession from the residential housing industry in the “affordable housing” sector (you don’t have to be a licensed architect to design a house, as long as you have a structural engineer stamp the drawings for the “will it stand up, and will it handle the local wind and snow loads” factors of the building design), but in my opinion it puts the public at the risk of an “out of balance” checks & balances design team that doesn’t fairly represent the clients’ best interest.  Now in this economy, I could spend the next 3 paragraphs complaining about being cut out of such a large part of the potential work that would put food on the table for my family, but I won’t get into that here.  I have a bigger bone to pick.

So what is the risk of “thoughtless & short-sighted design”?  Let me start by saying that I know and work with many very talented General Contractors, and they bring amazing insight and intellectual value to the design team and to the client.  That’s not the issue here.  This is an issue about where the country is going, and what we’re (the building industry as a whole) NOT PAYING ATTENTION TO.  I’ve been asked by a Seattle CAPS Occupational Therapist to come assess a house for an early Parkinson’s patient in Queen Anne neighborhood.  In the  two hours on site, I was able to measure, draw, and resolve a design for his two wheelchairs to better maneuver from the bedroom, down the hall, and into the (also reconfigured) kitchen as well as the bathroom, where he’d now be able to maneuver appropriately to utilize a new sink with under counter clearance, a new roll-in shower, and a more appropriate water closet (toilet) fixture.  That is the VALUE a CAPS designer brings to the table.  And for me specifically, that experience and training is coupled with the 8 years of schooling & field architecture firm work experience, followed by the 9 tests totaling 36 hours of exams it takes to become a licensed Architect in my state.

Again, I have great Contractors I work with every day.  What I don’t appreciate, is hearing potential clients or the “underbelly of the industry” reporting back to me that there are GC’s (General Contractors) and “Mr. Fix It” guys out there saying, “I can install a grab bar, what do you need an Architect for?”.  Hopefully now you understand what you DO need a PROFESSIONAL designer for, and it’s not your contractor or your builder.  It’s also not the developer that brought you your SPEC home.

The “basic speculative design” of the world around us is created for: A right handed person, of a completely average height & weight, with total mobility range and strength, with perfect eyesight, perfect vision, and the ability to communicate verbally with another human being…. Is that YOU?  If you are lucky enough that it is today, will it still be you in 10, 20, 30 years???  The world around us, and the U.S. demographic over the next 20-30+ years is NOT GOING TO WORK with the “speculative” approach.  It’s time for a paradigm shift.

I speak publicly on the topic regularly, in the interest of pro-active planning vs. reactive panic (see also my blog “Once you Fall, it’s too late to plan for ‘Aging In Place’ “).  Let’s not recreate the medical conundrum of “let’s pay the dollar for cure vs. the dime for prevention”.  Let’s get the word out, and start helping change the face of the residential building industry!!!

I am busting my rear-end to get the word out, because I care about my clients and our Older Americans.  I will be presenting along with other national thought leaders on “Aging In Place” in Chicago in March 2013 at the ASA “Aging In America” Conference, and also Co-Hosting “Encore Living Radio” with Joyce Joneschiet of Aging In Place Options & Encore Life Magazine, on 1150am KKNW in Seattle.  We’ll be on-air & STREAMING LIVE starting September 10th, from 8-9am via the “Chat with Women” show…

Stay Tuned to Empowering The Mature Mind, and TUNE IN this fall for all things wonderful and informative for you and your family during your “Encore Living” years!

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10 thoughts on “SPECULATIVE – The “Impersonal & Short-Sighted” House
  • Larry Cross says:

    Mr. Murphy asked, “Look at this photo. What’s wrong with it?”

    As a person who uses a walker, and an incipient “aging in place”
    designer, my immediate answer: “Install a pocket door.”

    I love my 2 pocket and 2 sliding doors. They make the interior of my home so much easier to use.

    With an increased design perception of universal design (not handicapped/disabled), homes will become more useable for everyone, regardless of their demographic.

    Also, design should include a focus on long-term needs in addition to what is needed in the short term.

    Perhaps the biggest “mistake” which too many architects, designers, and contractors make is a tremendous difficulty in envisioning how other people live and may live in the future.

    I design, in great part, from my experience as a less-abled person. I know first hand the difficulty of trying to open doors that swing, use steps that don’t even have a rail.

    If the above noted architects, designers, and contractors would use a wheelchair for just one day, designs would immediately improve exponentially.

    • admin says:

      Larry, Thank you so much for your comments!
      Yes, many times pocket doors and sliding doors are a great solution. We work very hard at EtMM and ADM Architecture to “walk in the shoes” of our clients, to truly spend the time and experience their ADL’s (Activities of Daily Living) so a design solution is CLIENT DRIVEN, not based on an architect’s aesthetic wants first, but rather beauty in conjunction with functionality that is specific to the short AND LONG term needs of the client, their caregiver, family, and those that would visit the home or property.

      I’ve actually spent 10 weeks in a wheelchair, during college at University of Washington in my favorite architectural studio which was a 102 unit mid-rise Jewish assisted living complex on first hill just above downtown Seattle. I learned to “pop wheelies” and ride on just the back two wheels up and down halls, around corners, and stay on two wheels for 10-20+ minutes… I was a PRO! Haha… I learned a lot by putting myself in that situation (all the students had the WC’s available in studio), and it allowed me to truly understand the challenges “from the chair”.

      Stay in touch, keep plugged in, and please continue to share your thoughts and feedback here at Empowering The Mature Mind. Thank you!


  • Parrish says:

    The major problem I see with the picture is NOT that the drawer can’t be opened all the way, although that is an inconvenience, and just bad design. The real problem is far more serious in that more accidents happen in the bathroom than any other room, and that includes young, able-bodied people. If a person falls or passes out at the bathroom sink, emergency workers won’t be able to quickly assist them because they’re blocking the door.

    We’re a design-build construction company that is also CAPS and the first thing I did to my current home was remove the second door to the WC in the hall bath. The space was so small that you literally had to step into the tight space between the toilet and the tub in order to close the door! I agree with Larry that, when possible, a pocket door makes perfect sense. On a retrofit, it may be possible to install the door swinging out, if a pocket door is not possible or the owners are high risk.

    Whether we’re remodeling a home or building custom, we make a habit of installing blocking to accommodate grab rails for our clients’ future needs. When there is more than one level in a home, we also encourage clients to install stacking closets so we can install an elevator later.

    It just takes a little thought, and the added expense to clients is so minimal when compare to the pain and suffering of a preventable injury, often requiring them to leave their home prematurely.

    • admin says:

      Parrish – Thank you very much for your comments and thoughts on the blog posting. You make a great point as well (I can’t cover EVERY angle in one posting, or it could go on forever!). I agree that falls and the inability to open a door in an emergency is just as big an issue with “speculative” design and the in-swing doors for restrooms of minimum size (regardless of someone’s ability level or age). Sad but true, as you noted, how tight and inconsiderate the design and size of standard housing restrooms are. Yes, both a pocket door or a swing-out solution are good answers, but many times the out-swinging door would impede exit travel in the direction of escape in a fire (typical for a commercial code / design that a door swing can’t impede the path of egress toward an exit by more than 1/2 of the width of the path of egress, as an example).

      2 years ago at Thanksgiving, I found that my parents (mother) had drawings done to remodel her master bath. A fancy full color 3-D drawing (by the cabinet makers) was created for the bathroom remodel, touting their company’s “full in-house design” team. AS you know, they do this “for free” because they’ll make plenty of $$ on the cabinet sale and install. What shocked me, was that when I looked at the actual bathroom design for a 62 year old couple, was a multitude of items that didn’t consider the future of my parents in their own home. I knew from talking to my mother that she “pushes off the TP holder” to help get off the water closet (toilet). I cringed at the thought, as we both know it’s not a “grab bar”, and is held only in the drywall (not studs behind the wall) by two small screws and a set screw on each side for the cover plates. I simply asked my mom to allow me 5 minutes and a red pen to put a few notes on the cabinet manufacturer’s drawings for them to edit for her. She allowed it, and I did just what you stated, which was to put blocking behind the walls in all the locations that a “future” grab bar might be useful and installed at a later date. That way, when my “I told you so” moment came in the years ahead, they won’t have to tear out their brand new floor to ceiling tile shower, the walls around the toilet, etc. I was happy that she let me mark up the drawings, as it created a “peace of mind for me”, which was the way I approached the conversation with her, and likely that approach was exactly the reason I was allowed to edit the drawings for the “cabinet people” that “designed” her “forever bathroom” (hahaha…).

      Good point and also something we design for in new and custom homes at ADM Architecture http://www.ADM-architecture.com (the parent company for EtMM), for the “future elevator” vertical shaft space to be considered at a location where you can stack closet spaces in upper / lower floor over each other in the floor plan footprints of each floor.

      Keep up the foresight, design thought process for “future use”, and all the great work you are doing! Thanks for sharing the message!


  • […] SPECULATIVE: The Impersonal and Short-sighted House […]

  • […] and builder/developer.  If these houses are selling QUICKER, or at HIGHER PRICES than the standard “spec house” that isn’t designed for anyone in particular, THEN we will have a viable movement in the housing industry – one that we’ve been […]

  • Way to blow your own horn guys. I myself don’t use the CAPS certification because its still way to watered own. I took the course ,tried to suggest to the NAHB how to police it and improve it, It was like talking to the wall. To bad there are bad apples even at the top of the tree.Too many wanabees right now with this “certification” using people as guinea pigs. If we really cared for the people who need this work then we would make the training fit the bill to call yourself a certified aging in place expert. I’ve been doing this work for many years now and I would much rather call myself a Committed Aging in Place Student because I’m always willing to learn. This certification should not be a comfort to the consumer until experience is verified. Just my opinion! But what do I know?

    • admin says:

      Charles, thanks for your comment. I’m in the business of “servant leadership”, so I feel it’s about “educating” and not “blowing ones’ own horn” per se. I agree that CAPS isn’t enough, and experience is. As a licensed architect (MUCH tougher to obtain than any CAPS certificate) I’d opt to share the over $3m in “accessible design” construction that we’ve done in the last 3-4 years related to empowering housing solutions and successful “Aging in Place” via good “forever home” design and construction projects. That, coupled with well over 1 million s.f. of commercial architecture projects in the last 18 years, with ADA access on every site, building entry, ramp, elevator, etc. DOES, in my humble opinion, allow me to consider myself as a worthy educator and “servant leader”. Thanks again for your feedback, it’s always welcome – as I too am an openly willing student and consummate learner in life. Cheers!

  • This photo is like “where’s Waldo?” – no drawer hardware (is it touch-latch?), a knob rather than lever-type door handle. Floor must be slippery – else why the area rug? No way for a seated person to use the sink – no knee-space, too-low a toe-kick. Floor/cabinet/counter/door quite monochromatic, making it hard to distinguish items for someone with poor vision.

    The issue isn’t only with spec-houses or design-build contractor houses. Many architects are unaware of what universal design really means [“Design for all” is vague. What’s a bathroom for someone with hearing loss? An entrance for someone with dementia?] Same goes for product suppliers – cabinet show-rooms, for example – and subcontractors who order and install items – plumbing fittings, mirror, lighting controls and fixtures…..

    Asking these kinds of questions a few years ago led me to write “The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages and Abilities” (Taunton Press), which reviews 35 houses around the US and abutting neighbors designed for and with people with a wide range of conditions – injury/illness/aging, mobility/sensory impairment, singles/couples/families – and homes of all types – urban/rural/suburban homes, big/small, new/renovated, etc. With 250 photos and 25 sets of floor plans, it’s an insightful look at what’s possible, written by an architect (me) and for design/construction folks as well as homeowners. Google it – better yet, buy it!

    • admin says:

      Thanks for the comments Deb! I own the book, I was given a copy by a friend a colleague who has a kitchen IN your book, the wonderful Mrs. Karen Braitmayer. We’ve shared the stage speaking together, and she’s a great mentor and advocate in our passion and message. Keep up the great work! “It takes a village”, right!? 🙂

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