Plans, Drafting + Design

Designing for Aging in Place: A Multi Part Blog Series

Design Philosophy, aging in placeJamie PurnellComment

Aging in Place for All Ages

There is an old Chinese adage that states, "Build the well before you are thirsty." It seems highly applicable to design and building. 

In the next few blog entries I'll be exploring the concept and some design ideas relating to aging in place. I guess that's partly because I'm ready and looking forward to staying put for a while. We're not young and we're not old either. What we are is getting ready to embark on our final homebuilding project (at least for a long long while) so it's on my mind. We want to build the right way for our needs, so that we can stay in our home for a long long time, incorporating needed and wished for spaces along with care and thought that will make the home comfortable for us potentially until we reach a great age. Here are some of the topics I'll explore, frequently using my own experiences as examples.  I hope that despite including my own experience as a reference point you'll easily be able to substitute yourself and your own inclinations along the way. If you want more or find a particular area of interest, check back in to future entries for a more fully fleshed out exploration. In the meantime, just kick back and ask yourself, "If I go to the trouble and expense of designing my dream home, what features would I include to make it a home I can enjoy for many decades to come?"

Long Term Affordability

Can your home be designed so that it also "pays for itself?"  For our next build, we want to incorporate some sort of structure in the design that will allow us to rent a fully separate part of our home out if we so choose. This will help with taxes, have the potential to generate income, and will provide space for visitors. Having an easy to care for unit that provides a little income potential will help us stay in our home, even if taxes continue to increase and we choose to retire someday, or if we weren't able to work any longer in our chosen field.  Not only that, if we ever needed medical care from someone skilled, they could even have a place to stay (we live in a geographically complicated location).

Designing for changes in physical capacities. 

Small Barrier Free Shower.jpg

Barrier Free Shower

Though not large, the 840 square foot Itacha Modern house we built offers a European style bathroom wet room with a curbless walk-in shower!

It's now easy to design classy and sleek kitchens and baths that are also fully accessible (this is also sometimes referred to as barrier free design). Check out the slick bathroom styles you can choose from at - all barrier free if you choose to make them so.  When we designed our last build, Ithaca Modern, which we finished earlier this year, we included a European style wet-room that has a curbless shower. Not only is it barrier free - it's easy to clean!

Kitchens, when you are designing your own home, are well worth doing some thinking about, and when you start from scratch, you get to make the rules. It's worth considering how to include options for an unknown future along with the appliances you've always dreamt of. They can mesh, I'm convinced.

Right sizing your house design. 

Health and mobility issues aside, what features should you include to make the house viable for your long term needs? This part of design is huge for aging in place without regrets! For us, it means spending enough time on the issue of right sizing. I'll use some of our concerns as examples. The bigger it is, the more maintenance costs involved both in time and money. Plus, we're minimalists by nature and don't want a huge house full of stuff. However, building too small could also land us on Rue Street (French 101 pun, sorry) - wishing we'd made enough space for things we really value and need. For example, we live in the usually wet and not too warm (but otherwise fairly wonderful) Pacific Northwest. For a couple of activity lovers, this leaves us valuing a space to work out indoors enough to include it in our design. 

Reaching a compromise with concerns. 

Again using ourselves as an example: Our building lot precludes building a one story house both dimensionally and in having a lovely view made even better with a second story. We don't anticipate losing our mobility - and take steps to maintain health. While we want to hedge our bets in designing for the long term, we can't hedge them all. We're okay with this, and with potentially needing to do some retrofitting down the road. I guess my point is, this isn't disaster planning - or at least, not strictly so. Nothing in thoughtful preparation has to preclude designing to your preconceived desires. Include what you want and at the same time spend a little time considering how it would feel to have to leave your home. Maybe there are some things you can include to make that a much less likely possibility, even if something rotten and unexpected happens to you.

The nitty gritty aspects of ADA specifications.

A ramp might be a less common need for aging in place but keeping entries wide and accessible without a lot of stairs could be useful. This is from an ADA approved plan we designed for some clients in our home town.

It's a little daunting to read the requirements that commercial buildings need to adhere to to meet these standards - check it out here if you don't believe me. You don't have to meet every one of these standards for your own build, but it's useful to know things like minimum width for making a full turn in a wheelchair in a kitchen or bathroom, for example, or having some information about accessible hallway and door widths or window and counter top heights that assist in barrier free living. A little information can assist and even foster design tremendously.

So what's next?

There is an old Chinese adage that states, "Build the well before you are thirsty." It seems highly applicable to design and building. Building a home that will accommodate you and your needs for the long term is great planning from a financial point of view at any age. You could just as easily employ this thinking when considering expanding your family as you could when downsizing at retirement age for example. This kind of thinking is one of the base layers of the Aging in Place approach to building. 

Imagine if your home allowed you to experience a major health setback, whether it were a temporary loss of mobility or something long term like a stroke or complications from an illness, and not have to spend days or weeks in a hospital or rehabilitation setting. How about the potentiality for assisted living from the privacy of your own home?  Certainly, an approach like this could save a lot of money in very short order, especially if a group setting doesn't appeal to you. Planning for aging in place can be as simple as including a first floor bedroom or as involved as planning for a fully barrier free home. You can be in any decade of your life and benefit from incorporating just a little of the thinking behind building for aging in place. Here are some common things to consider:

  • How many bedrooms will you need? 
  • Do you plan on having kids?
  • Is there a passion in your life that could likely become a home based business? 

As a quick thought exercise, Do you think at this point in time you could design a home that will last you all the way through your end? I'm not sure I could, but it's worth considering. 

I hope you'll stay tuned and enjoy some of my upcoming blog entries. If you have comments or suggestions, experiences or things especially on your priority list, I hope you'll share by sending me an email or leaving a comment below.


Does Building an ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) Make Sense for You?

ADUJamie PurnellComment

One type of home design that we often get drafting requests for these days is the Accessory Dwelling Unit, also known as an ADU or DADU (Detatched Accessory Dwelling Unit). We've also seen these small fully autonomous homes typically built in people's side yards or back yards called Laneway housing, mother in law cottages or backyard cottages. Whatever you call them, they are becoming a more and more common solution to a host of problems and needs. 

Benefits to building an ADU

 A fully functional ADU, right next door! Drafted by THE small HOUSE CATALOG.

A fully functional ADU, right next door! Drafted by THE small HOUSE CATALOG.

What are the benefits behind taking on a project like this?  Especially in cities, where space is at a premium both in terms of availability and typically price as well, an ADU can provide a potential for rental income literally right next door. An ADU can provide housing for other family members that might benefit from it temporarily (think adult children having their own space while attending college, mother and father in laws having their own space to live in while helping out kids when they have kids, overflow space for visitors, or just plug in your unique situation). It occurs to us that the potential for garnering rental income in areas where property taxes might be rising at alarming rates can be an excellent method to help one stay where they love being while staying afloat with rising costs. Whatever the situation might be, having a potential rental or some extra space can offer real benefits and doesn't have to break the bank to design, build or maintain. Custom design of the space can allow the homeowner to construct an aesthetically pleasing space that complements the original home design and brings all kinds of side benefits.

Special Considerations for ADU or DADU construction

Are there any drawbacks to having an ADU or DADU on your lot or acreage?  It seems that flexibility and potential benefits far outweigh the concerns, but there are always two sides to a story. Return on investment, obviously, might be the foremost question. Is it financially viable to you? As ADU and DADU style homes are typically smaller (around 500 sq. feet is fairly common) your building costs don't tend to be as difficult to comprehend and plan for as they would be with a larger structure. More things to consider and spend some time researching include the zoning, parking and other requirements or restrictions that might need careful attention paid in your area. Cities and municipalities generally write their own rules regarding these structures and those rules need to be approached thoughtfully in order to have a good experience.  Building a fully autonomous structure in your yard is a bit different than building a shed. One has to consider electrical and sewer/septic hookups and also how close this new dwelling might be to your current home. 

Some of the questions you might have as you consider this option are less technical and more personal. Do you feel comfortable with renters sharing a space literally right in your back yard?  How do you feel about managing and marketing a rental if that's what you are envisioning? Are you willing to live that close to your adult kids or your in laws?  Are they willing to live that close to you?  One would be wise to consider the potential of the building after your initiating need is met. Do you live in the kind of place (for example a growing city that has a real need for extra housing) that can support and pay you back for your costs if a few years down the line your in laws or kids or friends aren't using the space as much?  Can you rent it and augment your income?  If you are considering the ADU to expand your home space, could a more traditional addition serve you better or does a backyard cottage offer you a lot more flexibility?  If you are hoping to rent the space out for income, will you still want to do that in ten years? How will the completion of the ADU increase the value of your home in terms of resale?  

Design Your ADU With THE small HOUSE CATALOG

 This ADU, in the Ballard area of Seattle, is an 800 square foot Airbnb rental. Owner designed in conjunction with THE small HOUSE CATALOG.

This ADU, in the Ballard area of Seattle, is an 800 square foot Airbnb rental. Owner designed in conjunction with THE small HOUSE CATALOG.

None of these questions are too hard to speculate about and consider. The payback for spending a bit of time pondering questions like this is multifaceted. It can be fun, for one thing! And it can make your design process more fluid as well, as a fully considered project is easier to communicate to your drafter - designer and can really enhance the process of plan development. At this time, we've done work on ADU and DADU projects in several cities including Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles, as well as rural locations and smaller cities.  If you're considering a project like this, feel free to give us a call or fill out the estimate form here to get the design ball rolling. We'd love to help!

Time-Lapse Building Video of Plan No. 2: The Sago

Shawn A. DehnerComment

Last year I posted about this project in Moscow by Andrey Batlutsky. This video shows a time-lapse of the rough construction for Plan No. 2: Sago to the point of closing-in. The building site is beautifully treed and resembles my own Pacific Northwest.

I'm encouraging Andrey to keep sending us more of his awesome work, so please let him know you're interested both here and on Youtube!

Thanks to Andrey Batlutsky for sharing his project!

Custom Project in Georgia


I just received some fun photos of a custom house I designed with my client, Jodi, who lives and is building in Georgia. She's doing an amazing job with her husband! I'm going to track this project through to completion and will encourage the owner to send in more photos of this cool house! 

This design we did together was inspired by Plan No. 31- Fraxinus with some creative redesign on the floor plan. Primarily, the master suite was enlarged to include a large walk-in bathing area with a soaking tub, shower and double sink.

Thanks go out to my delightful client for sharing these latest photos!