Design for Aging and Green Design: They’re More Alike Than You Think!

By Leslie Shankman-Cohn, ASID, member of the ASID Aging in Place Council

One of the biggest challenges in the next 30 years will be how to meet the demand for quality living environments for the burgeoning population of older adults. Interior design is not just the process of creating functional and beautiful spaces; it’s about designing interiors that bring harmony and a feeling of well-being to the occupants. In the course of every project, designers must consider the materials involved in creating functional, aesthetically pleasing, healthy and affordable places to live, work and interact.

It is commonly thought that sustainable design, green design and urban planning are different disciplines from Universal Design and Aging in Style. Quite honestly, they are all inherently tied to one another and should be treated as such. This synergistic design approach provides a more effective finished product that combines usability with aesthetic appeal, sustainability and urbanism.

Because the basic principles of good design apply to all these fields, there are many aspects of green design that are appropriate to Universal Design and designing for aging in place, and vice versa. Indeed, they are compatible and complimentary.

“Green” designers use the environmentally friendly concepts of reduce, reuse and recycle. In this time of concern about the ecosystem, more consumers want building materials and design products that won't hurt the environment. Universal Design and Aging in Place take these concepts one step further by employing materials and design products that won’t hurt the occupants as well! Cork and bamboo flooring, for example, are not only fast growing and renewable resources, but are also termite resistant, thus eliminating the need for chemicals treatments, which might affect the aged, especially those with respiratory diseases, asthma or even just allergies. Plus, they have the added benefit of being “easy on the joints.”

Energy efficient lighting not only reduces energy waste and the costs associated with that, but the elderly and handicapped additionally benefit from the reduced need for frequent replacement of fixtures. In that same vein, passive solar design helps to reduce energy costs, which is a boon for those on fixed incomes.

Conversely, there are aspects of Universal Design and design for aging that also contribute to green or sustainable design. For instance, front loading washers use about 40 percent less water and half the energy of conventional models, and are recommended for individuals who have difficulty lifting and/or use a wheelchair. Likewise, sensor-activated faucets not only save water and energy, but are helpful for those with limited dexterity.

Moreover, initially designing homes that are adaptable means that occupants will need to do less remodeling later, thus reducing waste and energy associated with remodeling, and thereby “lightening the load” on our landfills. If there is less new building and more reuse and readapting of existing spaces, there will be less impact on our valuable natural resources, including energy consumption, air quality and virgin land, just to name a few. Additionally, there will be less demand on government monies if people are allowed to stay independent for as long as possible.

We need to realize that sometimes design issues fall outside the physical structure itself, as in the case of urban design. For instance, community planning and public transportation issues need to be addressed. Communities should be planned with better support services (such as grocery stores, pharmacies, entertainment venues, greenways, etc.) integrated into neighborhoods within walking distance or easily accessible by public transportation. These features would allow for true independence for those who are unable to drive or who simply do not want to use precious and valuable natural resources unnecessarily. Furthermore, they promote exercise and interaction with others that, in turn, stimulate better physical and emotional health, not to mention stronger ties to and within the community.

Successful design depends on a good fit between the person and the environment, where an individual’s abilities are in balance with his or her surroundings. It is essential that designers continue to learn all they can, not only about environmental issues, but also about age-related changes and social and psychological needs to create better environments for older adults. In addition, we need to broaden our scope of thought, addressing issues that pertain to individuals, communities and the environment alike. We must all understand that no matter what specialties we may practice, good design incorporates aspects of all design approaches that seek to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of the occupants.