Design for Longevity

Incorporating safety seamlessly into design

By Adam Gibson

Designing for longevity can be a challenge for some clients to appreciate. They don’t know what they don’t know about home design, often ignoring their approaching age, accompanied by its potential infirmities. Technology can be frightening for Luddites, including many of us designers. But there’s more to longevity than mere technology. 

The mention of incorporating safety measures into design brings an institutional look to mind. When consulting with a client, it’s my job to convince them otherwise. I do this by showing examples of my work; most are invisible until pointed out. 

In addition to being an architectural designer, I’m a professional architectural photographer. When presenting to clients, we view project images similar to what they seek. It gets us in the ballpark before the actual design begins. It’s fun to describe the safety and wellness elements behind the plan, as many aspects of designing for longevity are camouflaged.

“A design is successful when it looks gorgeous and its safety features are hidden in plain sight.”

Anyone who works with an electronics integrator knows the first things to disappear are wall and ceiling acne. Multi-gang light switches vanish, as do thermostats, alarm controls and speakers, replaced by tablets, phones and single-gang multi-use keypads. This is old news.

Great design seamlessly incorporates solutions for the “what if” scenarios. The first emotion I hear from those unfamiliar with smart home technology is fear of obsolescence — spending loads of cash for something that may become dysfunctional in a half-decade, and for good reason. 

The Cat 5 cable we used in 2010 can’t carry the signal we may use these days. Enter the very old-school: conduit. It’s cheap, easy to install and never goes bad. Run it anywhere your client wants to operate something now or in 50 years. Let the client know that you understand technology continually evolves and that you intend to future-proof their plan. 

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Aside from making elements appear to float, lighting under toe kicks and above cabinets or soffits becomes pathway and night lighting to prevent falls. It’s especially valuable for someone who understands color temperatures and circadian rhythms — this is where light makes the most impact. As we age, we need more light, but the correct type of light at varying times of day is essential. 

Decorative grab bars are next. They can blend with any aesthetic and must never look institutional. There are hundreds of beautiful designs on the market, and your client need not know the towel bars are actually grab bars. 

In the construction docs, always call out the specific fasteners needed. Do not assume the contractor will know what to use or insert a scrap 2″ x 8″ from the discard pile in their place. As a recovering contractor, I can attest that buying $15 fasteners for appropriate installation saves ER surprises.

The days of the shower’s curb entrance are ending, at least for tile installers in the know. With many shower niche systems on the market, there’s little reason to step over a curb. Plus, linear drains are attractive and often combine with zero-entry. 

Another benefit can be moving the drain from the center of the shower, also a trip hazard. Specifying a shower floor with a textured surface engages tactile stimulation by helping the toes keep their grip. Bathroom flooring should have a high dynamic coefficient of friction (DCOF). The DCOF determines the likelihood of a slip and fall event. 

Incorporating a horizon line is a beautiful decorative accent in a shower and can be of tremendous importance for someone suffering from a slight case of vertigo (or a hangover). The sightline encourages proper balance and helps maintain equilibrium. Usually, the placement is five feet above the floor. This can be a decorative tile band or a textural change.

A design is successful when it looks gorgeous and its safety features are hidden in plain sight. What better way to provide longevity for our clients?

Adam Gibson, CMKBD, CLIPP, CAPS is President of Adam Gibson Design. He is a Certified Master Kitchen and Bath Designer, Certified Living in Place Professional, and Certified Aging in Place Specialist. He may be reached at AdamGibson.com.