Real Estate

Positively Green

Is your home safe and sustainable?

by Iris Harrell

As baby-boomers blossom into their sunset years, many of them want to remain in their homes until they are carried out "with their boots on." In Silicon Valley, as in much of the country, there is a real shortage of retirement communities to which the silver-haired baby boomers can turn.

The grown children of the baby boomers are also facing the challenge of caring for their aging parents' safety and happiness while raising their own children. Members of this so-called "sandwich generation" often encounter these issues at the height of their career-development years. For many reasons, the sandwich parents often find their older mothers and fathers visiting for longer periods of time or even moving in with them, bringing three generations under the same roof.

Whether visiting or living together, families must prioritize how to provide accessibility, prevent falls and minimize plain-old human error. So what are the design, mechanical and technical elements of a home that make it safe for everyone under the same roof? What are the things to consider to ensure the home remains sustainable over a long period of time?

Zero-step clearances should be the first priority. Most people cannot imagine how difficult even one 5-inch step can be for someone who is in a wheelchair, using a walker or even temporarily on crutches. The human eye has trouble detecting an elevation change under 3 inches, so ironically a 3-inch elevation change is more dangerous than a 5- or 6-inch change in height. This applies also to young children who tend to run in spurts and not notice potential tripping hazards. Zero step also means having no shower curbs to step over and no split levels from room to room, such as sunken living rooms. Thresholds between rooms with different floor finishes should not vary more than one-half inch.

Zero-step clearance also applies to the outside of the home; there should be no steps to navigate from the car into the front door of the house. There are aesthetic solutions to this problem, even for hillside homes such as mine.

A second priority for a user-friendly home is adequate width for all clearances. If at all possible, interior and exterior doors should be at least 36 inches wide; 34-inch-wide interior openings are sufficient for pocket doors or even swing doors, as long as special hinges are used. In the kitchen, the distance between counters and an island needs to be 42 inches wide, although 48 inches is preferred in a two-cook kitchen so they can pass each other comfortably. The laundry room needs to have clearance for a wheelchair to turn around, and a front-loading washer or dryer with a 12-inch-high drawer beneath is perfect for everyone -- children, those in wheelchairs and adults of any height.

Good lighting inside and outside should be the third priority for safety. It is important to adequately light paths and walkways, and, if someone is physically unstable, smooth handrails at a comfortable height should be considered. With the abundance of artisans in the Bay Area, it is not difficult to have a custom handrail designed and created that is attractive and provides continuous handrails in long hallways that don't look like a commercial retirement home.

Fourth in the order of importance is the height of work surfaces, such as counters, dressers and vanities. Of concern to those in wheelchairs is being able to roll under the bottom of the sink vanity. Electronically adjustable kitchen islands and bathroom counters solve this problem, allowing varying heights for different family members throughout the day.

Priority five is choosing low-maintenance and highly durable materials for the hardworking areas of the home. Smooth, easily cleaned finishes such as quartz countertops are a good example. A suitable choice for flooring in the laundry room is Amtico, a vinyl product that comes in many attractive colors and patterns. Commonly used in hospitals, it is easy to clean and more forgiving on the feet than ceramic tile or stone. Wool carpeting can be installed as an area rug; the area underneath can be cleaned easily and the carpet itself can be removed for cleaning off-site.

Another hardworking surface of the home is the exterior. Factory-colored concrete that looks like shingles but does not need to be replaced or re-stained contributes to a home's sustainability. Windows can be wrapped with a prefinished product that prevents the wood frame from rotting and warping. "Smart" glazing on windows will keep the heat out in the summer and the warmth in during winter.

Priority six is to compile these decisions and choices into a timeless design package that will outlast trends that come and go. Since home improvements are such a big investment, built-in elements need to function well over time and look good for decades to come, with minimum care.

Universal design is the newest all-inclusive description encompassing all of the issues families need to think about when making changes to their home. And since members of the sandwich generation are now living together more often with grandparents, adult children and young children, making a home function for people of all ages and abilities is becoming increasingly imperative -- and by the way, is a more sustainable and green way to go.

Iris Harrell is board chairman of Harrell Remodeling, Inc. in Mountain View. She can be reached at 650-230-2900 or

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