Lauren Mark is 26 years old and may have just bought her retirement home.
In many ways, her 1.5-bedroom, two-floor loft in Mississauga is as perfect for her life now as it will be 50 years from now. A mall is right across the street. The community is friendly; the security guards at the condo ask if she needs help carrying groceries. By the time she isn’t driving any more, Toronto might have finally extended the subway that far west. And on a summer day, it’s almost as good as Florida: “If I go on my balcony, I feel like I’m at a resort,” she says, describing her view of trees, pools and tanning chairs.
Thinking this far ahead isn’t the norm, but as the average life expectancy rises and a greater percentage of Canadians hit retirement age, it may just be the next big thing in design. An emerging initiative called New Aging is all about proactively planning the future you want rather than letting circumstances decide for you.
And if Matthias Hollwich, an architect and author of a New Aging manifesto of sorts that is slated for publication in 2015, has his way, homes and neighbourhoods would be designed to give us what we need at any age so we never have to enter a nursing home.
“Aging is a gift that we receive with life. If you don’t like aging then you are basically dead,” says Hollwich, co-founder of New York architecture firm Hollwich Kushner Architecture DPC. He speaks with the zeal of a revolutionary, a visionary who just wants everyone to live a happy life for as long as possible. To do this, he says we should accept aging early (he is 43 but declared himself old several years ago) and prepare for aging the same way that we would plan a vacation: You wouldn’t take a trip around the world without first considering how to get there, where to stay, who to bring and leave behind, and what you want to experience.
And he applies his theory in his own life: He rents an apartment in Manhattan, but plans to purchase a property with friends by the time he turns 50, a space complete with private studios, a large communal living area and an extra apartment for a caregiver.
A New Aging home adheres to the principles of universal design, which considers the needs of people of every age and ability. For example, entrances, pathways, bathrooms and kitchens should accommodate someone with a walker or in a wheelchair. The philosophy also involves thinking about how the space could transform to meet new requirements over time: Equal-sized (rather than hierarchical) bedrooms would allow a caretaker to stay after kids grow up and move out; a spacious living room could be converted to share space with a bed one day; a future elevator could be added to the blueprints of a new house.
Hollwich and his team have designed several New Aging community prototypes for locations in the Europe, Africa and North America, but these concepts have not been built. However, all of his work is infused with an awareness of aging, including the 1,840-unit apartment building that is under construction in New Jersey, which will feature details such as barrier-free travel, direct access to public transit, kitchen surfaces that are the right height for wheelchairs and fully accessible bathrooms.
Ronny Wiskin, who founded Reliable Independent Living Services in Toronto and specializes in renovations that allow homeowners to age in place, says that building a house for the future is a smart investment. “More and more people are aware nowadays because of this large aging demographic – where we’re looking down the road saying, ‘Holy smokes! Grey is becoming the new blond and how do we help them to live comfortably where they want to live?’” Wiskin says.
Mississauga’s Lauren Mark may not be able to age in place in her condo (it’s too small for raising a family), but she’s thinking she’d rent it out and then move back later in life. “All of the things that you require on an everyday basis are right there – so that was huge when I was looking into buying it,” she says.
Deborah Biondino, a 27-year-old social-media manager, and her husband, Michael Bernardi, bought a townhouse in Laval, a suburb of Montreal, last winter and Biondino has the intention of spending the rest of her life there.
The three-bedroom, 1.5 bathroom townhouse isn’t ideal for someone with limited mobility – but Biondino is already planning renovations. “I want to make the shower bigger and have a seat put in,” she says, adding that she wants to remove the dangerous step and transform the shower so it’s flush with the floor.
All the bedrooms are on the second floor, which might be difficult to access in the far future, but Biondino has already thought of a solution: “The house can definitely have a bedroom put on the first floor. We could put up walls between the dining room and the living room and split that into equal-size rooms,” she says.
Biondino liked the house because, although big enough to accommodate a family, it isn’t so big that it’s difficult to maintain. “I didn’t want too much of a yard space,” she says, “I’ve seen how my grandfather, who has a huge yard, has already started downsizing.”
While New Aging is more an idea than a movement at the moment, Hunter Tura, president and CEO of Bruce Mau Design in Toronto, says the universality of aging means it could become integral to popular design philosophy.
“Sustainability is a great analog to [New Aging],” says Tura, who is working with Hollwich on the New Aging book. “What was once a kind of niche thing now really is a kind of industry standard. … I’d like to see the same thing happen over time to consider the needs of aging people.”