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Iris Harrell home - for blog

Remodeling a home to age in place

When Iris Harrell and her wife Ann Benson decided to sell their house in Portola Valley and move to Oakmont, they knew they wanted to find what would be their last home. Harrell, who had owned and retired from a home remodeling business, also realized, from professional and personal experience, any home they purchased would probably need modifications to fulfill their goal of aging in place.

They choose one that posed some challenges. Not wanting to give up the type of spectacular view they enjoyed at their last home, they bought one perched on the side of a hill in Oakmont. The location gives them spectacular views of Sonoma Valley, but the parcel has a steep driveway and acutely sloped front and back yards.

While they rent another home in Oakmont, the couple has launched a nine-month remodeling project that will convert a basement underneath their dream house into a guest room, install an elevator, widen doorways, furnish each bathroom with a curbless shower, enhance the lighting throughout, reduce the steepness of the driveway, eliminate the step-up currently required to enter the house, and lessen the angles of the front and back yards.

With the help of a senior designer from the design-build company she and Benson previously owned, “We were able to rough out everything that needed to be done,” Harrell said. The designer, Genie Nowicki, has been trained in the American Disability Act (ADA ) standards.

Harrell chose a local design-build company, Leff Construction, to execute the project because she was familiar with the company’s owner. “Dave [Leff] and I were both in a national remodelers peer review group. It’s coincidental that I moved here and his company is here. I called him and said, ‘Dave I need you to work on my house.’”

In addition to the accessibility issues Harrell and Benson are addressing in the remodel, Harrell also is deliberately choosing durable products and materials that don’t break or need repair. “The thing about aging in place and low maintenance—they dovetail nicely. As you get older, you don’t want to have to pay for maintenance, and you certainly don’t want to think about getting on a ladder and doing it yourself.”

In working with older clients through her business, Harrell found many resolve to stay in their homes, but don’t realize, or accept, what limitations they may face in the future. “They don’t like to think of themselves as being any less capable [in the future] than they are at this moment. They just assume they’ll always be able to lift their leg five or six inches, get out of the tub, or get from the car to the front door even if there is a step.”

Design professionals attuned to the value of universal design (producing environments that are inherently accessible to older people and even younger individuals with disabilities) are passionate about applying the principles to buildings they are designing or plan to inhabit.

And they know it’s easier to build a new house already equipped with accessibility features than to retrofit an existing structure. But the concept of universal design still hasn’t found its way into new housing developments on a large scale.

Commented Dave Leff, “It’s only a matter of time before a majority of the buying public are baby boomers who need a house with universal design as they age. We just haven’t quite gotten there yet.”

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