FlexHousing, building for adaptability

What if the home you are planning to build could be your family home for the rest of your life?  What if, with a little planning, your new home could adapt to meet the needs of your family and change as your family does?

That’s the idea behind FlexHousing.  A FlexHouse is a home designed before construction begins to be user friendly to its occupants at all stages of their lives and to make future renovations easier and cheaper for the homeowner to complete.  FlexHousing can eliminate the need to move from house to house as the requirements of your family change over time.

WHY FLEXHOUSING

The first home for many couples is often referred to as a “starter” home, which is typically small and easy to maintain.  Then, as children come along the first home is too small and that requires the costly and disruptive choice of moving.  When the children are grown and on their own this second home becomes too large for only two people to take care of.

As the population ages, half of all homes in Canada will house people 55 yeas old or older by 2017.  Also, with a declining population, fewer new homes will be built each year.  So homes that are flexible will be in big demand.  This flexibility not only is beneficial to the home, but if families don’t have the need to move, they stay in the neighbourhood longer, creating a stronger sense of community.

PRINCIPLES OF FLEXHOUSING

A FlexHouse isn’t a type of home style like a bungalow or two storey, it is the way it is designed prior to construction and is based on four principles.

• Adaptability
• Accessibility
• Affordability
• Healthy Housing

Adaptability:  The home is designed to be renovated to suit changing needs.

A large bedroom can be made into two smaller rooms and used as either another bedroom or home office.

A space such as the basement can be renovated to become a separate apartment by roughing in plumbing for a kitchen and bathroom that will bring in extra income later on or be used by an aging relative.

Bathroom walls can be given extra strength during construction to allow for the installing of grab bars and other special items to assist less mobile residents.
Install counters and cabinets in the kitchen or bathroom that can be adjusted vertically on brackets or that can have sections that are lower so that people in a wheelchair can reach with them.

Building such features into a new home during initial construction saves time, money and inconvenience when changes are needed or desired down the road.

Accessibility:  Everyone benefits from accessible homes, not just the elderly or those with special needs.  If the entrance to your home were level to ground, or nearly so, it would be far easier to navigate with a baby carriage as well as a wheelchair.  Wider doorways (34 inches to 36 inches) with lever handles instead of knobs simplify everyday household activities like bringing in armloads or groceries.

FlexHousing also considers the reduction of potential hazards in the home such as non-slip flooring in areas where water may be a factor such as entry ways, kitchens, bathrooms and laundry rooms and is also important on the stairways in your home.

Safety and security are basic considerations of every element in a FlexHouse, from strategic lighting to the layout of stairs and landings.  The placement of exterior lighting, pre-wiring for alarm systems and the installation of reliable locks all increase the feeling of security.

Affordability:  Since a Flexhouse is adaptable and efficient, the owners will benefit from the quality of their FlexHouse for as long as they live in it, and if they ever decide to move, they will reap the benefits of a high resale value.

A FlexHouse provides savings in utility and maintenance costs while you own the home.  And when it comes time to renovate, since things have been pre-planned and prepared for, the costs of renovation are reduced as well.

Having the space for an older relative to live with you adds a fuller depth to your lifestyle and the lives of your children.  And another adult in the home can help take care of younger children which is less expensive than traditional day care costs.

The costs and stress of moving can be eliminated if your home can adapt to your life.  And moving costs don’t only include the buying and selling of a new home, but real estate agent fees, legal fees, building inspector fees, furniture moving and redecorating costs that can be thousands of dollars each time you move.

If you have the ability to work from home in your profession, a home based office saves in many ways.  With the cost of fuel rising, imagine what can be saved on travel costs back and forth to the office, depreciation on your vehicle and parking expenses.  When you add in the value of the time consumed in the daily commute, a home based office has a variety of advantages.  There is also the advantage of being home when your children come home from school and generally being more available and connected to your family that working from home can bring.

Healthy Housing:  The improved efficiency of today’s heating; ventilation and air conditioning systems make a home more comfortable but have economic benefits as well.  FlexHouse owners save on utility costs while using fewer natural resources and enjoying greater control over their home environment.

In addition to using alternative water and wastewater systems where practical, the use of resource-efficient landscaping techniques help to conserve water and reduce maintenance for homeowners.

ROOM BY ROOM

Parking and Entrance:  As already mentioned, there are benefits to everyone in having wider entry doors and entry ways that are at ground level and maker tasks easier when your hands are full.

The area for parking your vehicle should have enough space around it to make loading and unloading someone in a wheelchair (9 feet) and the path leading to the front door should also be wide enough (60 inches) for that person to be able to maneuver and have only a gentle grade.  There should also be enough clear space in the area near the main door (5 square feet) to allow easy movement both outside the home and in the foyer.  This allows for easier removal of winter coats and boots as well as groceries, baby carriages and diaper bags and greeting guests.

The front door should have either a sidelight or window inset to allow you to see who is at the door before opening it for greater security.

Hallways and Stairs:  Stairs are a place of potential accidents in the home at any age and measures can be taken to increase safety on them.  In addition to non-slip surfaces on the stairs, make sure of adequate lighting.  Carrying things up and down the stairs is much easier if the stairs are made wider (43 inches).  This allows for room when your hands are full.  Handrails should start 1 foot before the top of the stairs, continue on any landings and end 1 foot past the bottom to provide maximum guidance and support.

The design of the flight of stairs, if made with a regular and smooth flow of tread and riser can actually increase safety.  The maximum height of the riser should be 7 inches and should not be open at the back of the tread, while the tread should be 11 inches deep.  To prevent fatigue, the flight of stairs should have a maximum of twelve steps in the flight or be divided by a landing into as equal a number of steps as possible.

Hallways should be 4 feet wide to allow freedom of movement for those with mobility problems as well as allow greater freedom when the children are young.

The bathroom:  The main bathroom for the home should be on the main floor and should be adaptable, safe, accessible an easy to use.  The bathroom door should have an area around it that is unobstructed and the bathtub should have free space along its entire length for ease of access, not to mention being less awkward to clean.  The surface on the bottom of the tub should be slip-resistant.

People with mobility problems may require grab bars for assistance, so reinforce the walls in the areas near the toilet and bath tub with ½ inch plywood before drywall is installed to make it easier to install these bars at a later time.

Install a hand held shower faucet for greater ease of use by family members of different heights.  With the use of an aerator, water use can be reduced by 60%.  The skin of a young child is far more sensitive than an adult, so to reduce the risk of scalding, install temperature balanced faucets and shower heads.

The Kitchen:  The gathering place for many families is in the kitchen and must be friendly and safe but also provide work areas that all members can utilize.

Counter tops should be at a height that is convenient and work surfaces should all be at the same height.  Counters closest to stoves and ovens should have a heat-resistant covering and the corners of all counters should be rounded for safety.  Installing boards that pull-out from beneath the counter top provides working surfaces that not only are easier for children to use but also slide out of the way when not in use.

The area of the toe kick under the cupboards and sink should be made to allow for wheelchair or a stool to assist younger children access.  The sink should have double bowls and lever handles on the faucets to increase ease of use.

To reduce the risk of burning yourself in the kitchen, consider the installation of a side opening wall oven rather than a more traditional oven.

Access to the cupboards is made easier if the handles are large and D-shaped for an easier grip for young children or those with arthritis.

Choosing energy efficient appliances in your kitchen can reduce your energy consumption by as much as 50%.

The Living Room:  The living Room and Family Room are usually the rooms in the home that sees the most activity.  Whether it is children playing, entertaining friends, watching television or studying, the room must serve several functions.

To maximize accessibility, the concept of “the sunken living room” should be avoided.  Not only does having the room all on the same level give the room a more open feel, but decreases trip hazards and increases the choices of furniture arrangement to allow easier traffic flow.

The room must be able to handle the needs of the increase of technology in our homes so there should be sufficient electrical, cable and other outlets to handle the demand.  Light switches should be lowered to a height that can be used while seated.

Since the living room / family room is often a focal point of the home, the appearance is often enhanced by large windows.  The use of argon – low E windows will increase their energy efficiency and if they can be placed facing south, you will take advantage of passive solar heat as well.

The Bedrooms:  The bedrooms should be on the same floor as an accessible bathroom and allow for 5 square feet around one side of the bed.  Windows should be placed lower (about 30 inches) from the floor to allow small children and seated family members to see outside.

Install light switches at the entrance to the room and beside the bed so that on one has to enter a dark room and can turn on the light from the bed if necessary.

At least one bedroom should be designed to someday be divided into two smaller rooms.  Each new room will require a door, window, lights, electrical outlets and closet space.  As children arrive and grow older, they need a space to call their own and have some privacy.  Pre-install telephone jacks, electrical outlets and network connections throughout the original room that will be needed for the child’s computer or if the room is to be used as a home office.

The Laundry Room:  Laundry day can be a chore, and making it easier is always welcome.  The risk of falling on the stairs while carrying loads of laundry can be reduced by having the laundry room on the same floor as the bedrooms and the bathroom.
The washer and dryer should be placed so that there is enough free space to work in the laundry room.  Front loading machines with front mounted controls are easiest to use.

Doing some of the work like ironing and folding clothes is made easier by installing task lighting.  The addition of a lowered work space makes it easier to fold laundry while in a seated position.  Ironing can also be done in the laundry room with the use of a wall-mounted ironing board that can be folded away when not being used.

Additional Space:  The basement is an obvious space that can be renovated to allow for an apartment.  Before construction, rough in the plumbing for a future kitchen and bathroom and run the wiring for rooms.  This way you can make an apartment with a separate entrance to bring in extra income or allow you to house an elderly relative.

But have you considered the area in the attic as useable space?  Roof trusses exist that provide all the strength needed for your roof but are made to allow for a comfortable room to be built later.  Such a place is perfect for an office, studio or bedroom for an older child.

FINAL WORD

There are many advantages to building a FlexHouse, but the main one is that when you build a FlexHouse you have built-in options.  The ability to easily adapt your home to your lifestyle gives you open ended choices.  You may not need that extra bedroom today, but isn’t it nice to know that it can be added easily?  You have put a lot of thought into your home, love the neighbourhood and are close to the amenities you want.  A FlexHouse allows you to enjoy your home for, perhaps, the rest of your life.

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