Boomer boom: renovation allows couple to stay put
Like so many of the estimated 78 million Baby Boomers circling the retirement ages, Charlottesville residents Don and Lynne Gardner began to think about where and how they wanted to live as they grew older. At age 70, Don had begun battling memory loss, and he required dialysis. And Lynn, a 65-year-old registered nurse, was beginning to worry about the basement stairs her husband insisted on negotiating to get to his beloved workbench.
They had raised two sons in their 38 years in the Hazel Street house, but Lynn began asking herself hard questions: “Could he continue to navigate the basement steps or the second floor and the numerous stairs? How safe was it for us to stay?”
But they didn't need assisted living, and they weren’t thrilled about the concept of a retirement community.
“We visited places that were touted as being for seniors,” says Lynne. “We would be surrounded by other seniors, but being around people of all ages, and kids, that’s what keeps you young.”
So Lynne and Don set out to find a smaller, senior-friendly designed house where they could “age in place.”
The Hazel Street house, which they’d bought for $14,000 in 1972, was recently assessed at $243,000, and the first home they bought on nearby Lexington Avenue for $11,300 in 1962, and had decided to keep as a rental property, was recently assessed at $285,000. The idea was to try and sell the Hazel Street house, and perhaps the Lexington Avenue house, which would leave them in good shape to buy a smaller house.
However, while Charlottesville is often touted as an attractive retirement destination for all those Boomers and offers several assisted living facilities, the Gardners discovered there weren’t many destinations they'd call home, especially in their price range.
“It’s slim pickens for seniors out there,” says Lynne. “There are just not many houses in town designed for seniors.”
And that would be houses with a master bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, and laundry all on the first floor–- plus easy access to the street.
Indeed, according to local realtor Jim Duncan, who picked up on this trend in 2005, out of the 1158 homes currently on the market in the Charlottesville/Albemarle area for under $1 million, only 143 have bedroom, kitchen, and laundry on the first floor, never mind a full bathroom.
“I have not found many houses/developments that incorporate Universal Design,” says Duncan.
“It’s a holistic approach to designing a home,” explains Richmond architect Burt Pinnock, pointing out that it’s based on creating homes that accommodate the needs of the elderly and physically disabled, “but without looking like a house for the disabled or elderly.”
For example, instead of stairs leading to the front door, there’d be a discreet ramp that could later be equipped with grab bars. Doorways and hallways would be wider to accommodate a wheelchair. Or there might be grab bars in the bathroom that looked and functioned as towel racks.
As luck would have it, much of Pinnock’s recent experience with universal design would come from working with the Gardners. Unable to finding suitable homes reasonably close to Downtown, one of the Gardners' sons, David, suggested they sell their house and consider remodeling the Lexington Avenue house. And Pinnock was an old friend.
“When your friend asks you to help design a home for their parents,” says Pinnock, “you can’t say no.”
Ironically, then, the Gardner’s first house would become their last.
Luckily, the Gardners were able to sell the Hazel Street house last November and move into the renovated Lexington Avenue property. The old house sold for $221,000, slightly under assessment, but enough to cover most of the seven-month, $300,000 renovation.
“The goal,” says Lynne, "was not to have a mortgage."
The house was essentially gutted, and a 600 square-foot addition was added. Features include discreet ramps, wheelchair-accessible counters and passageways, a washer and dryer on a pedestal (to eliminate the need to bend over), and even a discreet dialysis cabinet where Lynne can check on Don while she cooks. A medical alert system puts little push-buttons in various places, and the toilets are elevated. Still, as Lynne points out, the house doesn’t look like “somebody in a wheel chair lives here.”
The house also incorporates plenty of Ã¢â?¬Ë?green” features, including Icynene sprayed-foam insulation, HardiePlank siding, Trex decking, bamboo flooring, a tankless gas water heater, and Energy Star appliances.
“The big challenge was to get them to visualize and verbalize what they wanted,” says Pinnock, who points out that some of the features are particularly subtle. “From his bedroom, Don can see his work desk and the bathroom. These visual connectors were important to him.”
Another challenge was finding a builder.
“We spoke to many builders about our desired renovation and most balked at the idea,” said Lynne.
Fortunately, Charlottesville’s Abrahamse & Company Builders was up to the challenge.
“For years," says company owner Dale Abrahamse, "we’ve been interested in building high performance homes. But when you think about it, creating spaces that are accessible and allow people to age in place should also be a consideration in high performance.”
“We desperately need this in this community,” says Lynne, “but most builders are just not tuned into building places for seniors.”
“We’re starting to have parents that are getting older,” says Pinnock of himself and his associates, “so the idea of universal design is becoming more personal to us. We certainly recommend that seniors look at adapting what they already have. Psychologically for seniors, I think, staying in the same place is good, and it’s also sustainable.”