LeadingAge Magazine · September/October 2012 • Volume 02 • Number 05
In 2009, THW Design and LeadingAge collaborated to create the first Idea House, a platform to highlight the latest trends in senior living design and aging services technology. At the heart of that first iteration were three guiding principles: aging in place, technology in design, and sustainable design.

As trends progress and technology continues to advance, so does the Idea House, yet those three guiding principles remain central to the design. In addition to the original principles, the challenges of today's market require other design considerations as well: affordability and flexibility. To better demonstrate these ideals in an inspiring, home-like setting, THW Design and LeadingAge have worked hand-in-hand to present the new Idea House for 2012.

Building on the success of the previous house and retaining those basic concepts, the 2012 Idea House is a brand new platform, with newer technological features and items that reflect current trends in design. Though the economic challenges of the last few years have left few untouched, the continued advancement of technology has allowed features never thought possible to become affordable realities in today's homes and communities.

The aging services field stands to benefit greatly from this increase as trends increasingly show the potential integration with other systems and technologies currently available in seniors' homes today. The challenge for architects, designers, and operators is to integrate this cutting-edge technology into a setting as intimate as the home without compromising the comfort and sanctity of the home itself. It is this very challenge which the 2012 Idea House encounters and overcomes, demonstrating the union of home and technology and taking it to a new level.

Standing firm in their commitment to sustainable practices, much of the structure and materials from the previous Idea House was used in the new one to reduce construction waste. Solar panels, once financially out of reach for many, have become more easily affordable and are featured in this year's Idea House. Likewise, water- and energy-efficient fixtures and appliances represent opportunities for long-term savings.

For ease of comparison, the 2012 Idea House showcases four unit types: independent living, assisted living, and two skilled nursing suites. Centered around an inviting social space, these units embody the marriage of state-of-the-art technology and good design principles as they apply to the continuum of care. By using widely recognized iconic symbols of a home, the 2012 Idea House presents an adaptable and expandable environment that expresses the character and components of “home,” while providing the connectivity that all people need to their communities and, ultimately, each other. Iconic symbols such as the welcome of the garden and front door, the classic pitched roof that every child relates to as the symbol of home, the warmth of the hearth and the social gathering that occurs around a kitchen table are all images expressing the essence of “home” in our culture.

Once only a utilitarian space, the kitchen today is the heart of the home. This reality seldom changes as people age or their abilities change. As the 2012 Idea House demonstrates, there are solutions to maintaining independence in the kitchen for every level of ability. Cabinets that transition to wheelchair height at the touch of a button and generous toe-kick clearances assure universal access to virtually every corner of the kitchen. Likewise, varied and adjustable countertop heights provide ample workspace for food prep or activities. Central to the space is the kitchen table. This is a place where families and friends meet for eating together, family business, or just to relate to one another. With its proximity to the fireplace and hearth, the kitchen allows for a clear definition of spaces and a seamless entertaining space contiguous with the living room.

The living room of the 2012 Idea House represents the ideal social space, whether for a single-occupancy home or a communal place for multiple residents. Comfortable seating at heights suitable for seniors is arranged to provide an inviting space to entertain and relax with friends and family.

The bedroom is a sanctuary away from the public spaces of the home where residents can retreat for time alone. Large windows allow daylight to fill the room while providing restorative views into the gardens surrounding the home. The fit and finish of the bedroom also allows for the medical necessities of increasing levels of care, while at the same time provides for their discreet placement. As residents age in place, greater clearances may be needed for the activities of daily living. A prominent feature, which may not be easily identifiable, is the flexibility of the bedroom's layout. The framing and arrangement of utility connections inside the walls ensure the ease of renovation for the transition of care in the future. This also means that multiple suites may be combined or separated as tastes and needs require.

The bathroom of the 2012 Idea House creates an atmosphere where seniors may retain their independence and dignity, but also provides for caregiver access as necessary. Ideally, residents would have the choice to select the fixtures that match their level of comfort, while leaving the option open for any potential renovations in the future as they age in place.

While the interior spaces are important, it is their connection to outdoor spaces which grounds a home. Large windows and easily identifiable doors to the garden give residents life beyond the walls. The concept of biophilia proposes that there is a natural attraction between people and other living things. Bird and butterfly gardens invite seniors and wildlife to come into close contact. Vegetable gardens serve multiple purposes, bringing residents together for a common purpose, while at the same time, the responsibility of caring for a garden and being able to contribute to their own dinner table can provide seniors a greater sense of worth and being needed.

Proper planning of these outdoor spaces gives seniors a comforting sense of containment and security. The combination of clear way-finding monuments (signs, landmarks, etc.) and monitoring technologies gives them peace of mind that they are in a safe place and never far from assistance if needed. Careful attention to lighting levels ensures these spaces can be enjoyed in the evenings, while giving caregivers the flexibility to adjust them as necessary so as not to interrupt the circadian rhythms of the residents.

Porches and patios serve as transitions to these outdoor rooms and the community beyond the front door. For many, the back porch is a place rich with lifelong memories of childhood activities, watching their own children or grandchildren at play and quiet times of reflection enjoying the outdoors. Likewise, the front porch is a welcoming place for greeting old friends or meeting new ones. Building on this ideal, the home can be a connection point to the greater community as more campuses explore the possibility of contracting off-campus services or involving outside providers.

The Idea House demonstrates that “home” can be any place that embraces our perception of its iconic symbols, from a single house to a cluster home concept to a series of skilled-care households in a high-rise building. With proper planning and forward thinking, these environments can be as adaptable as market needs dictate without losing the essence of home, community and the social confluence that makes us vital and whole.

Through the use of tangible, real-world examples, the 2012 Idea House stands as an inspiration to think forward about the nature of senior living and how adaptations to the current model can expand the reach of care to more economic markets, ultimately increasing the vitality of seniors in communities throughout America and, ultimately, the world beyond our boundaries.