“Universal living is all about the fact that if something happens to me, I don’t have to move.”

Homebuilder Doug McDowell

McDowell, talking about the houses he and architect James Satzinger were building in Las Placitas Compound on Garcia Street, knows what more and more buyers are demanding.

Whether it’s called “universal design,” “aging in place” or “accessible design,” it’s becoming a big thing for builders who have an eye on the future for buyers in a community that’s aging.

In short, all those terms mean this: making sure your digs will be as comfortable in the future as they are today. It’s a sensible thing to consider as people plan for their retirement.

Most existing homes simply were not designed, for example, with wheelchairs in mind. But some homebuilders are now paying attention to such needs.

One is Rob Gibbs of Arete Homes of Santa Fe. His house at 1784 Calle Arbolitos is part of this year’s Haciendas — A Parade of Homes. In the resource guide for Haciendas, running this weekend and Aug. 16-18, the house description says the “single-story residence has no steps and is designed for aging in place.”

Just four of the builders of the 20 houses that are part of Haciendas chose to highlight aging-in-place characteristics in the resource guide descriptions.

Another is Praxis Design/Build. Its house at 3 Camino Barranca in the Aldea subdivision was “purposefully designed for flexible retirement living.”

Praxis owner, architect and builder Gabriel Browne said nearly all of his houses feature single-level design, roll-over thresholds at exterior doorways, and roll-in showers with built-in seating. He also prioritizes wide doorways, as would be required for wheelchair or a walker, as well as blocking for future grab bars at toilet and shower locations.

For its Haciendas home, Praxis went further, adding a casita that can function as a work space, an office, a studio or bedrooms for two independent sets of visitors.

“Think adult children with developing families, but it could also function as an in-law suite or rental for increasing fixed incomes, or as a one-bedroom home for a live-in caretaker with a small family,” Browne said. “The main house is really only one bedroom, so this casita plays all of these ‘other’ roles in a way I think expands some of the concepts of aging in place.”

Of its Haciendas entry at 17 Via Harena in the Tessera community, builder Homewise describes a “single-level home.” That’s a key term for accessibility.

Homewise Executive Director Mike Loftin confirmed that avoiding steps is a priority in some of their homes.

“We are paying attention to that because we get folks that care about that,” he said.

“People are wanting different things now, and you pay attention to the design and accessibility stuff. The other thing we’re looking at is making it easier for people to have the guest house because they want their parents to move into the guest house or older people may want a caretaker to move in, so that’s another important aspect to aging in place.”

The fourth Parade of Homes entry with an age-sympathetic phrase in the resource guide is Woods Design Builders. When you visit 1204 S. Summit Drive, it’s obvious the home has minimal interior steps.

“I would say aging in place is a primary concern of our homeowners that we’re always trying to achieve,” said Rob Woods. “Zero interior steps is always the goal, but with the difficult lots and zoning requirements in Santa Fe, that can often be impossible.”

The only steps in the Woods house are the two steps from the garage into the house and steps going into the guest area.

The list of great universal-design attributes includes:

• Kitchen drawers instead of cabinets.

• Kitchen and bathroom counter heights customized to the user(s).

• No-step entries.

• One-story living.

• Wide doorways — at least 32 inches wide to accommodate wheelchairs.

• Extra floor space for people in wheelchairs to be able to turn.

The National Association of Home Builders says some universal-design features just make good sense. “Once you bring them into your home, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them,” it says.

Examples are floors and bathtubs with nonslip surfaces, door thresholds that are flush with the floor, lever door handles, and good lighting.

While some important changes can be made to your home easily and cheaply, other aging-in-place remodeling may be very expensive or impossible. You might have to bite the bullet and admit that your future comfort requires buying a new house.

One way to get a head start on these issues is to consult a certified aging-in-place specialist. This is a designation developed by the homebuilders association, AARP and other organizations. Four individuals in Santa Fe are CAPS-certified: homebuilder Douglas Maahs; interior designer Lisa Samuel; Cydney Martin, the family and consumer sciences agent with the Santa Fe County Extension Service; and Wendy Vander Ham, project manager at homebuilder Jansen Associates.

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