Why building SAFERhomes makes sense for buyers and sellers

In 20 years, almost half the population will be over 65. Why isn't that factored into every new home design?

Simple design changes in homes transform lives. Why aren't they more prevalent?

In 1996, Fraser Valley builder Patrick Simpson had a sledgehammer-swinging back tweak that paralyzed his legs for seven months. It took him another
11 months to learn to walk
without aids.

That accident steeled his determination to keep working on features that make new homes safe and attractive for people in any condition. Today as executive director of SAFERhome Standards Society (www.saferhomesociety.com), he's promoting 19 simple steps any homebuilder can take to meet what he says is "the only measurable universal standard in the world."

For every person in a wheelchair, there are 1,000 kids under five and 1,000 seniors with the same building design needs. That's a huge market. In 20 years, almost half the population will be over 65. Why isn't that factored into every new home design?

One reason is that selling "universal design" to builders and homebuyers – strangely – isn't easy.

"As soon as a home is associated with wheelchairs, the average consumer turns away," Simpson says. "Even people in wheelchairs don't want to be seen as disabled. It's all about language. We never say 'disabled' and we're getting away from 'universal design'. Now the word is 'inclusive'."

Language and perception. Seniors don't want friends visiting their homes to see grab bars in the bathroom.

"Don't ever call them 'grab bars', says Simpson. "We prefer to call them 'love handles', to help two people take a shower together." Hey, zoomers!

To meet SAFERhome certification, a bathroom just has to have two-by-12 lumber nailed horizontally between the studs three feet off the floor, ready to go. When the day comes when, er, love handles are necessary, the owner just screws them in, avoiding a huge bathroom renovation cost.

Another required bathroom feature is an electrical outlet beside the toilet – at a cost of around $25. The inability to go to the toilet unassisted is the biggest reason seniors have to move into what Simpson calls "geezer warehouses." Having that outlet enables future installation of an electric-powered Toto toilet that can clean and dry a person who needs help.

In 1994, Simpson built a CMHC-sponsored Jenish three-bedroom, two-level universal design home in Maple Ridge five doors away from an identical Jenish design conventional home. His sold for $312,000; the neighbouring one sold for $265,000.

SAFERhome hallways have to be at least 40 inches wide, preferably 42 inches; doors have to be at least 34 inches compared with a standard 32-inch door.

The B.C. Ministry of Health is a supporter, given that almost 800 seniors die each year in the province from falls that hospitalize more than 10,000. Falls cost the province $180 million a year in direct health-care costs alone. One out of five seniors who suffer a hip fracture (almost all from falls) dies within a year. Almost half never fully recover.

Simpson still has certified only 400 homes.

"It's coming to a point where it has to be marketed in a whole other way."

The big challenge is to persuade homebuilders these features are worth it. Simpson has just set up a pilot project in partnership with the Homeowner Protection Office looking for developers to incorporate SAFERhome standards into a 100 new residential units. They'll get $600 for each unit, which Simpson is confident will cover all the additional costs. More importantly, the pilot project will gather data on exactly how much more homebuyers will pay for a SAFERhome.

Once you start thinking about this, it's hard to imagine living or investing in a new home without these standards. •

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