Accessory dwelling units are a fast-growing trend in the real estate industry, especially in high-priced markets like California’s major metros. One increasing use for these tiny spaces is seniors turning their long-time residences over to their adult children’s families and moving into small bonus homes added to their properties.
“The number of permits taken out for ADUs in California has increased 11-fold in the last few years,” observed Linnette Edwards, a certified senior real estate specialist in Oakland, California and co-founder of Abio Properties, in an earlier Forbes.com interview, adding, “Multi-generational living via ADUs is high priority. The pandemic, which isolated many of these older homeowners from their families for a year, accelerated this trend, she noted.
Living on the same lot as your relatives isn’t always easy, and privacy can be a concern for everyone. Mary Maydan, a Palo Alto-based architect who designed and built an ADU for her own parents at her former property, addresses that challenge with a careful eye toward the complex needs of multi-generation living.
“The key is trying to create for each generation its own home within the home,” she notes. Whether attached or separate, the unit needs to have full privacy, while also being accessible to the main house so that the seniors can maintain both autonomy and family connectivity as they age, she observes. That often includes strategic door, window and patio placement.
Autonomy should also include separate climate controls, the architect suggests. “We recommend that an ADU have its own HVAC unit. It enables the older generation that often prefers warmer temperatures, to set their own thermostat to whatever they feel comfortable with.”
One of the challenges in downsizing from a large family home to an ADU is that many so-called granny flats are not particularly accessible for grandmothers (or grandfathers) who use wheelchairs, walkers or have other conditions that may impact their flexibility and mobility. These include common ailments that increase with age, like vision loss, hearing loss, osteoporosis and arthritis, as well as conditions like Parkinson’s and stroke.
Adding accessibility to this new home space can make it appealing to a growing segment of the population. According to a 2017 Census Bureau report, one in three seniors has trouble using some feature of their homes. Since the number of Americans 65 and older is expected to double, reaching 80 million by 2040, the demand for accessible housing will also substantially increase.
The good news is that even compact ADUs can be designed with accessibility and aging in place features. In Maydan’s parents’ new residence, for example, wide doorways, a spacious bathroom and the ability to add a seat elevator to the exterior steps if needed in the future were factored into the plan.
“The ADU, whether detached or attached, is always on the ground level and we avoid steps inside the unit,” the architect comments. “We try to minimize hallways, and when there is a hallway, we design it to be as short and wide as possible. Doorways are three feet or wider to allow for wheelchair maneuverability. We make sure to design spacious bathrooms and curbless showers.” Good lighting and highly-functional space planning are also key, she notes. “When the goal is accessibility, we are even more keen on not wasting square footage.”
Maydan also factors in one of the most serious health considerations for seniors: “When we design spaces for older residents, who are more at risk for slipping and falling, we are very careful about tripping hazards, and use softer materials when possible. For example, fabric-wrapped bed frames are safer than wooden frames.”
Additional Aging in Place Features
When designing for older residents, quiet kitchen and bath vent fans can be helpful in fostering easier conversation. Smart home technology that alerts caregivers to issues or simplifies window shading and answering the door can also be beneficial to this population.
Factoring in color contrasts and pathway lighting adds safety to moving around the space, especially at night. Organization accessories can make deep corner cabinets and high wall cabinets in the kitchen reachable for more users and bidet functionality enhances independent living in the bathroom. Slip-resistant materials for flooring are also essential, particularly in wet areas like kitchen, bathroom, entry and outdoor living spaces.
John DL Arendsen, CEO of Crest Backyard Homes, a San Diego-based building contractor who specializes in ADUs, predicts increased demand for accessible models: “We anticipate many [requests] as Baby Boomers continue to enter retirement and desire to age in place.”
Three-quarters of Crest’s projects are prefabricated factory-built homes, the builder says, which offer considerable savings ($200 to $250 per square foot compared to $300 to $500, he reports) and a shorter turnaround time to buyers relative to site-built projects. They also reduce the number of workers coming onto the property, he adds, which can be a security advantage for older homeowners who may feel more vulnerable during the building process.
Even with a prefab ADU, you can add accessibility features, Arendsen points out. He’s already added ADA-compliant doors and halls, lower countertop heights, roll-in showers and walk-in tubs, grab bars, ramps and lifts for entries and smart house options that enhance accessibility. These can add $10,000 to $20,000 to a factory-built project, he shares, but only minimally-increased production time.
With the type of custom project Maydan designs, the cost difference is negligible, the architect says. “A three-foot door is a little more expensive than a standard door, but the price difference is insignificant. On the other hand, these kinds of features definitely add to the desirability of the overall project.”
Photo Credit: Palo Alto Accessory Dwelling Unit by Maydan Architects; Photography: Dave Edwards