Forever Young Information

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Renovations; Do it flexibly

By Don Wall, FYI National Editor
February 24, 2014 - 12 comments

Renovators who incorporate flexible housing concepts into home design are able to take care of current needs and also look to accommodate the needs of a future generation as well


Is there a home renovation in your future?

If there is, and you are aged around 45, 50, 55, what principles will be guiding you on your project?

Most people are probably thinking modern, open-concept kitchen and dining rooms, expansive “indoor-outdoor” patios or crazy entertainment rooms – but are you giving a thought to 25 or 30 years down the road?

There is a small but growing movement in Canada to incorporate adaptable, or flexible, housing concepts into home design and renovations, with an eye to creating spaces not only for the present but also for household needs a generation or even two into the future.

Flexible housing is different from accessible housing. The former means planning for future changes, such that today’s renovation may include installing a piece of plywood into a bathroom wall now so that when a grab bar is needed by a future resident – perhaps the current homeowner, but aged and slowed in 25 years – the structure is all set for the minor addition. The latter is adding the grab bar, or low-level windows, or front-door ramp, right now.

“For people 45 to 55 years old, probably they own their house,” explains Josee Dion, senior researcher, housing needs for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. “And for them, 50 per cent of their housing stock is at least 30 years old.

“Most of them need repairs and renovations. So if they do the renovations right now, they should do it in a clever way, and think about the concept of flexibility.”

By now the statistics proving that society is aging are familiar. Statistics Canada notes that in 2006, Canadians aged 55 years and over made up about one quarter of the population, while those aged 65 years and older made up about 14 per cent. It is estimated that more than one-third (35 per cent) of the population will be over 55 by 2036, and almost one quarter (24 per cent) will be over 65.

Combine these raw numbers with surveys showing that 85 per cent of older Canadians want to age in place – that is, stay in their own homes as long as possible – and the need for wise and efficient planning for renovations becomes even more important.

The CMHC’s trademarked FlexHousing concept has been around since the 1990s and is expounded upon in an extensive section on the CMHC’s website. But predating the CMHC effort was that of Avi Friedman, 61, a McGill architecture professor who wrote about adaptable housing for both his master’s and doctor’s theses and in 1990 unveiled the concept of the Grow Home, a narrow, two-storey, single-family unit four metres (14 feet) wide with a basement that can adapt to multiple uses, including accommodating two or three households. “The design by nature is flexible,” says Friedman. “There were no support walls that prevented you from moving things.”

In 1997, he created the Next Home, again with an adaptable interior, that is three storeys and is intended for several families. In both cases, the theory he has espoused is that builders using his plans might offer buyers options for interior use of space. When needs change, he says, it is better to be able to move a wall in one hour than to take a sledgehammer to it, as depicted on all of the television renovations programs.

The Grow Home concept has been used in well over 10,000 homes in Canada, he says, primarily in the Montreal area where he lives, and also in the U.S. and England, and the book he wrote on it has been translated into other languages with the result that builders in the Czech Republic and China have also adopted his concepts.

In the context of adaptable homes, says Friedman, the number-one room for renovations is the basement.

“One of the things that distinguishes North American homes has been (the popularity of renovations in) the basement, basement areas by design left to the buyer to work on,” says Friedman. “We did some research and found tremendous things have been happening in the basement. People turning them into work spaces, living spaces, etc.”

Roofs are another area where his designs can mean future flexibility in renovations, he says. “If you look at roof trusses, we eliminated support wall from many interiors, and this gives us tremendous flexibility.”

Where builders have not borrowed complete Grow Homes plans in creating new housing, says Friedman, in many cases there are parts of the package used.

Both Dion and Friedman point out the advantages of embracing adaptable homes as a way of making renovations or additions more affordable. Dion says that by planning for future renovations now, major structural changes may not have to be undertaken down the road. Friedman says by incorporating adaptability from the beginning – with wide-open spaces that can be tailored to future needs that come along, perhaps when they can be afforded – the initial costs of a building a dwelling are reduced and so are future renovations.

One of the social trends that will dominate the next few years is the retirement of the baby-boom generation, says Friedman, many of whom will want to age-in-place. “The flexible home is about to be very critical in adapting the home to that stage. It will be on different levels. It will be on the component level, installing handrails, bathroom elements. And many people who will be able to afford it will have part-time or full-time help. So converting a portion of a home into a new dwelling can accommodate a nurse in those later years, or it will increase the income that they will have, if they can rent it out to someone else. So this will be the outcome of providing additional flexibility in design.”

The CMHC offers extensive information on its website to assist developers, renovators and homeowners in understanding the concept of flexible housing, and also looks for opportunities at conferences and home shows to preach the gospel of incorporating adaptability into building and renovations. Search “CHMC” and “flex housing.”

There have been several demonstration buildings or working structures constructed as well, including a National Research Council test house in Ottawa, Home 2000 in Burnaby, BC and FlexHouse in Richmond, BC. Student housing labelled UniverCity at Simon Fraser U. in British Columbia is also touted as embracing the adaptable housing approach.

Friedman, meanwhile, has two books available explaining the Grow Home and the Next Home, and of course there are thousands of units around the world that have been built that were inspired by his ideas.

“We sent fantastic amounts of information out, and I get postcards from British Columbia, from Ontario, and they say, this is a Grow Home. It isn’t recognized as such on the advertisements, but when you see a home that is 4.2 metres, 16 feet wide, with a basement, two storeys plus a basement, and when you walk in and you see the combination living room and dining room and kitchen, and the basement is usually unfinished, that’s it.”

“I gave the concept, and that concept was very successful.”

Look up “mix and match homes Calgary” on Google to view homes in Edmonton, Calgary and Austin, Texas that reflect Friedman’s concepts.


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