Intelligent Design

Design that supports aging is becoming increasingly mainstream, focusing on convenience, accessibility, flexibility and, of course, beauty.

authors Janice Costa | June 6, 2018

Currently the largest adult generation, baby boomers transformed the country when they first came of age, redefining everything from cultural norms to trends to technology. By their sheer volume as much as their passionate beliefs, baby boomers changed the face of a nation.

So it’s no surprise that the aging of this massive generation born between 1946 and 1964 will have significant implications for the entire country. It’s already happening in the design world.

As the generation that vowed to stay “forever young” struggles with the realities of aging, kitchen and bath professionals are challenged to create design solutions flexible enough to support an aging population. And, at the same time, they must find a way to do so while taking into consideration boomers’ wholesale rejection of the very concept of age as anything more than an arbitrary number.

These seemingly conflicting demands are helping to re-invent design for aging. As a result, what was once a small niche area has been blown into a full-scale movement demanding intelligent design that doesn’t single out seniors, but rather encompasses them – and many others – to create smart spaces that maximize comfort, accessibility and beauty.

Whether it’s called universal design, design for aging (or living) in place, accessible design or simply intelligent design, the goal is not just to solve problems in a beautiful way, but to prevent some of the hazards and inconveniences associated with aging through the power of good design.

This month, Kitchen & Bath Design News speaks with a quartet of kitchen designers who have specialized expertise in designing for an aging consumer base, having earned Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) and/or Certified Living in Place Professional (CLIPP) designations.


Regardless of the target audience, good design is design that, above all, works well. And that’s not age-specific. So says Molly McCabe, AKBD, CGP, CAPS, CLIPP, of the Bainbridge Island, WA-based A Kitchen That Works LLC who notes, “I incorporate universal design into every project I do. I don’t care what the age of the client is because it’s not about aging. There are 40 year olds who have strokes. There are young people who drink and drive and end up in unfortunate circumstances. And the way housing prices are, and with assisted care facilities being so expensive, it makes sense to prepare our homes for the unexpected rather than going back to retrofit later, which will be significantly more expensive.”

She encourages every client to go with a zero-threshold shower and to install grab bars – or at least block them out in the wall so it’s a simple matter of drilling them in if needed – “because it just makes sense.” And, along the same lines, she recommends smartly placed outlets in the bathroom – something that came in handy in a recent job where the homeowner had trouble lifting himself on and off the toilet despite support bars. McCabe found a product called a Seat Lift, which raises the seat up at the push of a button – and because the outlet had already been included, there was minimal retrofitting involved.

Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, CBD, CAPS, CAASH, CLIPP, president of the Brookfield, CT Mary Jo Peterson, Inc. agrees: “There should always be support in the bathroom because it’s a wet area, and that’s the room where most accidents happen. When possible, a no-threshold shower is a great choice; it’s both beautiful and subtle, but also more supportive of any of us getting in and out without a problem.”

In the kitchen, she notes, “It’s all about extreme convenience. To create accessible storage that comes to you…well, who wouldn’t want that?”

Patti Phipps, CLIPP of the Fort Lauderdale, FL Patricia Jean Designs believes the evolution of aging-in-place design has created style options that transcend “design for aging.” As examples, she cites “hands-free faucets that are convenient for everyone,” as well as “grab bars that are no longer grab bars, they’re beautiful towel bars” and tiles where “each pattern comes in glossy, matte and rough finishes to provide a non-slip surface in needed areas, which adds safety without compromising aesthetics.”


While the majority of universal design features work well for all users, designing for an aging clientele is as much about preventing problems as solving them.

As Peterson sees it, “Done right, design for aging in place really should be a proactive effort – not a solution to a problem, but a way to avoid problems by creating a supportive environment.”

To that end, she stresses the value of convenience features that provide flexibility as well as comfort. This might be as simple as designing shower controls that can be accessed from outside the shower, or a heated toilet seat or a washlet, which can be a wonderful luxury for now but might evolve into a necessity if a client develops health issues later in life.

McCabe says, “I encourage every client to go with a zero-threshold shower, regardless of age. To retrofit it later, you’d have to tear out the whole shower. And people really like the look.” She also advocates for seats or benches in showers – something she learned the hard way after tearing a ligament in her ankle. “I had a 32″x32″ shower, and I literally could not shower,” she recalls. “Now I say, ‘make a seat so you can take a seat.’”

Material choices matter, too, and McCabe explains, “Part of my job is guiding clients toward picking out materials that are going to be good for them.” Sometimes these can be comfort related. For instance, she recently discouraged an older client who wanted a glass countertop because of the higher noise quotient.

Likewise, she steers older clients toward contrasting colors and textures on countertops and floors, explaining that “older eyes can suffer from macular degeneration or issues with depth perception. A dichotomy between countertop and floor in color and texture helps prevent them from putting a water glass on the edge of the counter and missing it, or not being able to bend over and see well enough to clean up the broken glass. If they have stairs, the same concept applies: You want to make treads and steps different colors.”

Good lighting can make all the difference, and McCabe notes the importance of adjusting lighting for older clients to help compensate for changes in how they see color. “One of the reasons they use fluorescent lighting in assisted care facilities is because our color perception is more yellowed with age, and the fluorescent is natural blue so it makes the light look whiter and more true to color for aging eyes.”

Additionally, she points out, “For people who may have dementia, shadows can be frightening. It’s important to have broad light coverage so there are no shadows, or minimal shadows.” Nor should this just be a consideration for clients suffering from cognitive issues. “Designing in this type of lighting early on can make life easier if problems develop later in a client’s life,” she maintains.

While she is generally gentle in her suggestions and doesn’t believe in “scare tactics,” McCabe does feel strongly that heated floors are a must for older homeowners. She explains, “The bathroom is the primary place where accidents happen. And, if you fall and can’t get up and are there for a while before anyone finds you, a tile floor is cold and you’re more likely to go into shock. So floor warming systems can really save lives.”

In the kitchen, Phipps is a fan of designing spaces that minimize the need to carry heavy items. For instance, she states, “I always want to make sure the sink and the stove are in the same space because if they’re putting something in a pot in the sink, I don’t want them carrying this heavy pot from across the island or way down to the other end of the kitchen.”

Barbara Barton, CMKBD, CAPS, CLIPP of the Littleton, CO-based Barbara Barton Associates also sees lighting as a critical component of designing for older consumers and admits, “This whole movement is forcing me to be much more efficient in my lighting knowledge.” She will sometimes bring a desk lamp into a client’s home with two different bulbs so she can show them the difference between warm LED lighting and cooler LED lighting in the space. “Many times, they don’t realize what’s possible or available until they see it,” she says. She also brings in flooring samples and has them step on them in stocking feet to really get a feel for what the material is like. And, of course, she is careful to incorporate little details like radius corner edges, touchless faucets and matte finishes on countertops. “[This movement] is so much more than just roll-out shelves,” she exclaims.

Having worked in the appliance arena for many years, Barton gives careful consideration to appliance choices when designing for an older client. She notes, “Sharp’s new motion sensor microwave drawer is what I love to show first. If they need a microwave, we’re not going to go up high, we’re going to go in a drawer. With built-in ovens, I’m leaning toward the French doors, if they can’t afford it, we’ll go with something like the Bosch or Gaggenau that’s hinged on the left.”

She continues, “With cooktops, my main ‘go to’ is still induction for the safety benefits.” She also points out that some cooktops offer better visual contrast for the cooking area, noting, “I’ve discovered the pattern in the glass isn’t just about not showing dirt, it really helps to define the surface area for someone in bifocals versus the effect of shiny black glass.”

When it comes to refrigerators, she suggests, “You have to look at the hinge system and weight of the door. If they’re putting in too many shelves, the weight of that door with all that food on it can be a problem for people who are losing shoulder or elbow strength or who have arthritic hands. I love the aesthetic look of a built in, but sometimes that gets to be too hard for someone older. If they get a French Door model, though, you’re helping to eliminate that issue of extra weight on the door.”

Along the same lines, she points out that, because frozen food is heavier than fresh food, the placement of freezer drawers is important, along with full-extension capabilities on those drawers. And, of course, “internal lighting in the refrigerator cavity is critical,” she states.


While few would argue the value of design features that promote safety, accessibility and flexibility, selling them to clients can present its own set of challenges. Ironically, this is particularly true for clients in their 60s, 70s and 80s who are most likely to benefit from them. The classic adage, “‘Old’ is always 10 years older than you are” comes into play here; regardless of their age, people rarely think of themselves as “old,” and can be highly sensitive to any suggestions to the contrary, the designers assert.

Phipps explains, “As a designer, I have to tread lightly. People don’t feel as old as they are these days, and they don’t want to be reminded that they’re getting older.” So instead of focusing on the aspects that are age related, she spotlights the fashion and convenience benefits.

As an example, she cites a bath she did for a client who’d had a recent hip surgery. Showing her the plan, she said, “I put in a really cute sit down vanity so you can relax while you’re doing your make up.” While left unspoken, the vanity’s ability to support wheelchair access if needed offers added future value.

McCabe finds that clients are often more receptive to features that support aging in place when she brings other people into the equation. “There are a lot of ways to ease their apprehension,” she believes. “I might mention guests visiting, or providing a safe place for their elderly parents to bathe. If they have grandchildren, we’ll talk about preventing accidents for them.”

Peterson agrees that “stealth marketing” can often be the way to go. She doesn’t suggest a “no-threshold shower,” but instead refers to it as a “European-style shower.”

And, she explains, “When I’m doing a plan, I don’t point out [that these features will help with aging in place], I just put them in there. So I’ll be showing them the design, and go through the whole plan, saying, ‘here’s the vanity…and here’s where we’ll place the toilet, and the support rails go there,’ and just continue unless they stop me.” If that happens, she simply explains why the feature is a good idea and why most clients want it.

This is part of a selling technique she initially learned in Dale Carnegie classes many years ago – the idea of “third-party testimonials.” She explains, “People seem to be more receptive when you tell a story about another client, i.e. ‘Past clients have found that X really works well for them because…’”

Barton agrees that a third-party testimonial can be helpful, but she also believes word choices matter when selling features that benefit aging consumers. “I am committed to sharing living-in-place principals, but I rarely use those words. Rather, I talk in terms of safety, comfort and flexibility.” She also likes the word “expansive,” which indicates a space that would work for people of all ages and abilities, including visitors, neighbors, friends or even pets. As she sees it, the more people a space works for, the better for the homeowner – and the better for the home’s value, as well.

Even treading carefully, though, selling safety and accessibility can be tricky. McCabe admits, “I had two people who threw me out of their house once, offended because I wanted to put in grab bars.” However, she sees this as a small price to pay for potentially saving lives.

While aging consumers can be wary of the idea of ugly, institutional design being thrust upon them, Peterson believes many are coming around to the idea of supportive design, especially since it has become both stylish and mainstream.

She says, “Historically, it was always the designer who brought up this topic, but nowadays I see more clients who are asking for good, healthy design that will support them forever.”

She concludes, “Things are changing, and design that supports aging is becoming mainstream because it’s just intelligent design. That chapter has begun, and if you don’t do it, you’re missing the boat.” ▪

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